Engineers Without Borders: An Honors Duo’s Trip to Uganda

Author: Stephanie Albert, junior

Honors students Kelsey Vinzant ‘20 and Meg Whelan ’21 first connected with each other through the Honors Mentorship Program, which pairs incoming Honors students with upperclassman peers. In one of their first conversations, Kelsey mentioned her involvement with Fordham’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which has since become another shared experience for the pair.

Kelsey, the current president of the club says, “At Fordham, EWB is a group of students of many disciplinary backgrounds and we are partnered with a community in Uganda through an NGO there called “Selocoffi” which stands for Serere Local Community Fish Farming Initiative. Through their partnership, we are linked to communities that are interested in building fish farms. Our task is to visit and survey land, then design a suitable fish farm for their community.” Thus far, the Fordham chapter of EWB has successfully built two fish farms.

This past August, Kelsey and Meg, along with several other Fordham participants, visited their partner community in Uganda. The trip lasted for 10 days and involved almost 48 hours of travel to get from the United States to the small villages in Uganda. The main purpose of their trip was to oversee construction to make sure things were going well. Three people who went on the trip were very involved technically so they could help with any issues or any necessary deviations from their designs that arose. They also met with the community to sign contracts and assign roles, such as a security guard, for the new fish farm. The Fordham group also was able to briefly look at land for a new breeding center project location, which is the third stage of Fordham’s EWB project. It will allow the club to have a more widespread impact because more Ugandans will have access to the center, making the project more sustainable for the communities. The Fordham students were also able to go visit a full-scale fish farm that is funded by numerous organizations including the UN, so they were able to get to see how a larger-scale project operated and what their project could possibly grow into in the future.

While visiting, the group stayed at the home of the man who operates Selocoffi. “His family was really wonderful and his daughter Lucy was always cooking for us and bringing out these amazing meals.” “The trip didn’t seem as busy [while we were there] but looking back on it, we were able to do quite a lot.”

Both Meg and Kelsey noted that community interactions were the most memorable parts of the trip. A particularly special interaction was meeting the Ugandan students who benefit from the portion of farm proceeds that goes to local education and healthcare initiatives.  They interacted with the students by exchanging language lessons — the Fordham students shared some English phrases with the kids, who then taught them some words in Ateso, their native dialect. This was Meg’s first ever trip abroad, so a lot stood out to her but learning about the culture of the people they were visiting was the most impactful.

For each Fordham EWB delegation, there are a few students who have participated in previous visits. Their leadership helps facilitate introductions and interactions with their host community. The most rewarding aspect of the trip was the meeting with the host community because they presented gifts to the returning Fordham delegates. “We have an adult professional engineer who travels with us and they gave him a live chicken which is a big deal,” shared Kelsey.

In reflecting on taking this trip with her Honors mentor, Meg spoke about how grateful she was to have Kelsey to help orient her in addition to orienting the whole group. The last three presidents of EWB have been Rose Hill Honors students and numerous other members of the club have also been Honors students. Although there were cultural and communication barriers as well as a variety of stakeholders for the Fordham team to coordinate with, Meg and Kelsey used the skills they’d learned around the Honors seminar table to discern when to speak up and when to listen, in order to collaborate well for this global partnership.

Redesigning The Student Mentorship Program

Started several years ago, the Honors Mentorship Program paired incoming Honors first-years with sophomores or juniors during the summer before their first year.  With the help of current Honors junior Henry Zink, the program was redesigned for the 2018-2019 school year. This new Mentorship Program allows Honors first-years to enter into mentoring “families,” in which they join with students from each cohort within the Program, creating small groups rather than pairs.

A psychology major and music and theology double minor, Henry found his experience as a first-year in the Mentorship Program valuable.  “I appreciated the opportunity to get to know an upperclassman and to pick his brain about both Honors-specific and general college topics,” he told me.  However, as Henry completed his first few semesters within the Honors Program, he noticed that younger students were looking for more ways to foster community with older Honors students: “Many Honors students felt that they had more success forming connections with other upperclassmen who weren’t their mentors.”  With this in mind, Henry started looking for ways to expand the Mentorship Program.

With funding from the Honors Program, Henry was able to attend the 2017 AJCU Honors Conference at Loyola New Orleans. There, he spoke with Honors students from other Jesuit schools about their student mentorship programs.  Inspired by these conversations, Henry pitched the idea of redesigning the Rose Hill Honors’ Mentorship Program to the program director, Dr. Eve Keller. He believed that by placing students into mentor families, rather than pairs, they would be encouraged to stay more connected and spend more time together.  Moreover, he hoped that involving Honors students from all grades would promote bonding across the Honors Program as a whole.

The new iteration of the Mentorship Program officially kicked off with the annual Mentorship Reception in September.  At the event, Honors first-years were welcomed into the Honors community as they met their new mentor family and got to know the upperclassmen better.  So far, Henry has received positive feedback about the program’s redesign: “It seems like people are excited about their mentees and the opportunity to be involved in a mentor family.  I’m excited to see what happens in the next two years and beyond, as the program grows.”

Student Advisory Council Meeting

The Honors Program’s first Student Advisory Council (SAC) meeting of the year was a great success, with twenty-five students representing each class year in attendance.

Honors Students at the AJCU Conference in 2016
Honors Students at the AJCU Conference in 2016

Dr. Keller, the Honors Program Director, began the meeting by recapping some of the highlights of last year’s SAC, including presentations at the AJCU Honors Conference at Gonzaga in February (pictured) and a pilot program on Professional Development. Then, she invited student leaders of each SAC committee to say a bit about their committee’s work last year and plans for this year. Finally, she opened the floor to new ideas, which ended up including the addition of six new committees.

Here’s a list of the Honors Student Advisory Council committees for 2016-2017:

1. Arts and Entertainment
2. Curriculum Enrichment
3. Service and Social Justice
4. Professional Development
5. STEM/Pre-Health
6. Web Presence
7. Outreach and Recruitment
AND, our new committees:
8. Wellness and Puppies
9. Humanities
10. Junior Year Events
11. Senior Event/Seminar
12. Alumni Relations
13. Business Initiatives

Dr. Keller invited students to share their ideas for the future of SAC
Dr. Keller invited students to share their ideas for the future of SAC

We’re looking forward to a great year with SAC!