Bridge the Gap

USI engineering students help connect rural populations to resources and services.

Bridges help build the future, and a program at the University of Southern Indiana is helping pave the way. Since 2019, USI has been involved with the Engineers in Action Bridge Program, which allows students to help people and places connect.

EIA is a group of university and college chapters in the U.S., Canada, and England deployed around the world to help rural populations connect with necessary resources and services by building pedestrian and car bridges. With faculty advisors Jason Hill and Justin Amos from USI’s engineering department, USI’s EIA group has traveled on four trips in partnership with other universities.

“It’s amazing to see how well the students adapt,” Hill says.

In June, five USI students — Koby Lindner, Josiah Hollis, Lisa Botello, Melanie Cedeno Morales, and Miguel Pinto — spent six weeks in the Hhohho region of Eswatini, a South African country, building a pedestrian footbridge to connect a local community of 4,800 residents, including more than 3,500 children, with schools, hospitals, and stores by replacing a bridge. The previous bridge was unusable seven months of the year due to flooding from Eswatini’s rainy season.

Photo by Melanie Cedeno Morales. A group of students and community members cross Emkhiweni Bridge for the first time on inauguration day. 

USI also worked with five students from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and two from Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon. The process was labor intensive, including two semesters of work, starting with a project application — USI has been approved by EIA for a project every year. Each project must be built to EIA’s standards, including safety.

Students then work on designing the bridge using soil and terrain data along with mentorship from EIA staff, including professional engineers. Two students who have since graduated, Corrie Grubb and Daniel Lopez, helped with the design. Once the design is complete, students set up ordering and transporting materials to areas with relatively limited resources. Students also have to coordinate their own travel and where they will stay.

Funding for the Eswatini trip came from EIA, USI Foundation, USI Department of Engineering, and partner universities, with additional donations, and ended up totaling around $30,000. Residents in each local community also help build and fund EIA projects. One of the challenges faced during the Eswatini building process was when the sand for mixing concrete ran out, and locals did not have enough money to get more. EIA stepped in with additional funding, and the bridge was completed in time.

Photo by Melanie Cedeno Morales. A child from a village in the Hhohho region in Eswatini crosses the bridge at the inauguration ceremony. 

Once students completed the bridge project and returned to their respective campuses, a local EIA representative took responsibility for assessing the bridge and determining what continued maintenance is necessary.

However, the experience is not just about building a bridge. There also is an element of immersion in an unfamiliar place and a vast array of cultures and traditions. Lindner, a mechanical engineering major and one of the Lead Construction Managers for this project, says one of the biggest things he learned was how different people are. Students stayed with host families and did chores, attended local ceremonies and important events, and ate the local cuisine.

“The cultural difference was the most different,” Linder says.

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Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti
Maggie Valenti joined Tucker Publishing Group in September 2022 as a staff writer. She graduated from Gettysburg College in 2020 with a bachelors degree in English. A Connecticut native, Maggie has ridden horses for 15 years and has hunt seat competition experience on the East Coast.

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