By Laura Ertel
This past summer, three Nicholas School students gained a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Uganda that will prepare them for their future careers, and an international organization gained technical expertise and assistance on water quality issues—thanks to the matchmaking skills and generosity of a member of our school community.
For years, Jeff Chandler T’84 and his wife, Kerry, have been involved with ChangeALife Uganda (CALU), a nonprofit organization that provides education and programs for families in two Ugandan communities on water and sanitation, maternal health, hygiene, dental health and microenterprise. The Chandler family has traveled to Uganda with the organization.
As an engaged member of the Nicholas School Board of Visitors, Jeff Chandler knew that environmental health and improving access to clean drinking water was one of the school’s priority areas for research, education and practice.
“I knew CALU could use help with a variety of issues including water quality and quantity and sanitation, and I thought this might align well with the school’s need to provide educational opportunities for students,” he says. “I wondered if introducing these two organizations might benefit both.”
In July 2013, Chandler reached out to Erika Weinthal, Nicholas School associate dean for international programs and Charlotte Clark, who oversees the student group Masters Projects (MPs), about offering professional environmental degree students a hands-on international experience.
Following up on their excitement for the project, Chandler then connected Weinthal and Clark with CALU leaders, who began working together on a mutually beneficial partnership.
“We want to give our students opportunities to work in teams, apply classroom learning to real-world problems, and gain experience and professional connections for their future careers,” Clark explains. “Working with CALU presented a unique opportunity for students with interests in water, sanitation and hygiene (a field known as WASH) to apply their science and field-based interview skills.”
For villagers in rural Migyera, Uganda, access to clean water is a serious challenge. Women and children walk for hours to collect water for personal hygiene and drinking. Much of this water is contaminated, making it a source of life-threatening illnesses. CALU recently built a water supply system in Migyera to provide clean water to the school, health center and part of the local community.
The plan for the group MP project called for a student team to spend the summer in Migyera researching available sources of water, water collection methods, handling, purification and home storage in order to help CALU determine how to help more families access reliable, potable water.
The expense to send students to a remote village halfway around the world was significant, and Clark and Weinthal didn’t want the cost to dissuade interested students. The Chandlers offered to cover travel and living expenses and stipends for three students—making this the Nicholas School’s first privately funded group MP, and the first fully funded international student team.
For Nicholas professional environmental degree students Elizabeth Kendall, Francis Oggeri and Alayne Potter, this opportunity was too good to pass up.
“This group MP gave me real field experience working in the WASH sector, which is essential for the profession I plan to pursue,” Kendall says.
Oggeri had intended to work independently and hadn’t given the group MPs much thought, he admits. “But what made this project stand out for me was the opportunity to work in a water-scarce region in international development, and to provide a client with tangible solutions to the issues they face.”
In May, Kendall, Oggeri and Potter flew to Uganda and met their CALU contacts before heading to Migyera. To meet their research goals, they applied tools and skills they had learned in their Nicholas School classes, including water quality testing, data collection techniques such as surveys, interviews and focus group discussions, and data mapping. They also conducted workshops with students, health center staff, teachers and community members to help the villagers understand the risks associated with their water-related habits and to encourage them to shift to healthier habits.
Each week, the team checked in with their Nicholas School faculty advisors —Weinthal on water policy, and Avner Vengosh on the water quality sampling/ analysis—if the electricity and Internet were both functioning. They lived in a simple home, equipped with water jugs and mosquito nets, ate local cuisine, and traveled by foot or by boda boda (motorcycle).
At the outset, Weinthal had advised the students that to work in a developing country, they would need to be flexible, open-minded and adaptable—and they quickly saw the truth in her advice. The biggest challenges, the trio said, were communication and time. With so many people involved, so many languages and cultural differences, even fairly simple tasks could become enormous, timeconsuming obstacles. However, learning to problem-solve and overcome those obstacles made them even more excited and appreciative as they moved forward.
“We have experienced accomplishments, faced almost crushing defeats, found moments of clarity, reworked our work plan repeatedly, and learned immensely from our client, neighbors and each other,” Kendall reports from Migyera.
Potter adds: “We have had our ups and downs, and what is a major problem today is resolved first thing tomorrow. Every day we are learning something new about the country, the culture, the people, or how to best implement our project. This is by far the most educational experience I have received while at Duke.”
The students also learned a lot about teamwork. “We met to talk things through more times in a day than I can count,” Potter notes. “We had to make sure we were all on the same page so we could get our in-country partners on the same page as well.”
Now back at the Nicholas School, the students are using the data they collected in Uganda to produce a detailed report and video documentary demonstrating methods of collection and purification and providing concrete solutions to the problems of water collection, purification and sanitation. They will present their findings to CALU so the organization can use this information to advance its water and sanitation initiatives in Migyera. The team also will develop educational materials that CALU can use in Migyera and other Ugandan communities to teach residents how and why to adopt healthier water-related behaviors.
Despite the challenges, this experience has fueled each student’s desire to pursue a career in international development in the WASH sector.
Chandler is thrilled at the results of his matchmaking efforts. “Both the Nicholas School and CALU are characterized by a ‘can-do’ spirit, and that’s really essential to navigating the challenges of operating in these less developed countries. I think it’s a great marriage.” Weinthal hopes that other Nicholas School community members will consider connecting the school with international organizations they’re involved with, where teams of students could provide a valuable service while gaining hands-on experience.
“This was such a unique opportunity to work in Africa and to work on water and sanitation issues. Our students would love opportunities to work in conservation, entrepreneurship and other areas in developing countries. Jeff has gotten us started in a big way, and we’d love to build on this momentum with other donors and alumni interested in sponsoring similar opportunities for student enrichment.”
If you have a connection to an international organization that might present a good partnership for our group MPs, please contact Erika Weinthal at email@example.com. To learn how you can sponsor a student enrichment experience, please contact Mike Gulley in the External Affairs department at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Laura Ertel is a freelance writer living in Durham, N.C.