Do you like tinkering with equipment and fixing broken things? Does travel and adventure in far-flung places appeal? Are you free this summer?
If you just answered a resounding, “Yes, Sireee!” to all those things, how about combining them with the additional bonus of helping people and potentially even saving lives. How does it sound now?
The EWH Summer Institute program is offering all UNSW engineering students the opportunity to spend nine weeks of their 2019 summer break deeply immersed in a community in Cambodia or Uganda.
Volunteers receive technical training, language lessons and cultural experiences during the first four weeks in their chosen country’s capital city. Then, for the remainder of the trip, they move (with a partner or in a team of three) into a remote area to live with local families while working at a hospital fixing medical equipment.
EWH stands for Engineering World Health and is a non-profit global organisation that engages the passions of students and professionals to work with hospitals and clinics that serve resource-poor communities of the developing world.
UNSW’s EWH Chapter began at the beginning of 2014 and has become an important humanitarian engineering-focused offering for students wishing to be part of a society that provides practical help and improves healthcare delivery in the developing world.
According to Dr Lauren Kark, Academic Lead for the Summer Institute and Senior Lecturer in the Graduate School of Biomedical Engineering, the impact students have is significant.
“In the 2018 Summer Institute program, UNSW engineering students volunteered the equivalent of one million dollars’ worth of service and repaired hundreds of pieces of equipment, which is a huge achievement,” she says.
“Returning broken equipment to service means a hospital can be more productive but, student volunteers also focus on developing training materials and teaching local technicians on the use and maintenance of equipment. This means the impact of their work continues long after they’ve returned home to Australia,” Lauren continues.
Luisa Schreck is studying Materials Science and Biomedical Engineering at UNSW and is in her fifth and final year. She has been involved with EWH since it first started and is currently the President of the EWH Chapter.
Persuaded by friends to go along to some early meetings, Luisa says she was drawn to the society initially to supplement the coursework aspect of her degree with some practical experience. When the Summer Institute program was offered in 2016, she was quick to sign up.
“I went to Cambodia and worked in a rural hospital repairing and doing maintenance on equipment that ranged from suction pumps and refrigerator centrifuges to ECG monitors and electrolyte testers,” she says.
“The work was very varied and interesting and knowing that the equipment we repaired could help save somebody’s life was a great feeling. We also made great friends with the people working at the hospital.”
Luisa enjoyed living with local people too. “One of the families we stayed with had a kid our age who made a real effort to communicate with us and went to special lengths to make us feel welcome. It was great having that insider view of the area,” she says.
One of the key features of the program is that students are encouraged to work on a secondary project that they identify and pursue themselves. It can be related to technology but doesn’t have to be says Lauren. “Past groups have built a playground for children undergoing treatment, others have installed new water purification facilities,” she says.
The support students receive while they’re in-country are from EWH-employed teaching assistants during the first phase and from on-the-ground coordinators during the second phase. “On-the-ground coordinators are trained to provide pastoral as well as technical support, so help is always nearby,” continues Lauren.
Will Lewin is in the fifth year of his Biomedical and Mechatronic Engineering Degree at UNSW and joined EWH at the start of 2016 when he saw a flyer advertising the Summer Institute. He enjoyed his experience in Cambodia so much that when he saw a recruitment ad in an EWH newsletter about paid work in Uganda, he put an application in straight away.
“I knew, pretty much as soon as I was doing the Cambodia trip back in 2016, that I wanted to do more of this sort of work,” he says.
“I’m going to be working on the 2019 Summer Institute in Uganda which involves being a teaching assistant in the first instance, providing technical support and mentoring student participants, and an on-the-ground coordinator in the second month, so visiting hospitals where students are stationed and checking to make sure they’re ok and have everything they need.”
Will, who is also the current Vice-President of the Design Team for the UNSW EWH Chapter, says the benefits of the program are wide reaching and he would recommend it to any engineering student looking to expand their skill set personally and professionally.
“I would say definitely go for it. If you’re interested in getting out there and helping people, it’s a fantastic opportunity. It’s also a great way to improve your communication, leadership and other interpersonal skills. Plus, it’s a great adventure too,” he says.
“It’s so much more immersive than if you just went backpacking to see the sights. The cultural immersion is quite a subtle aspect of the trip, and not without its challenges, but I just loved learning the language and finding out about the Cambodian lifestyle and culture.”
Luisa couldn’t agree more. “Doing the Summer Institute program is a really good idea because it teaches you a lot of skills that you just won’t learn in a classroom. It’s a great adventure and very different from what you might experience in a developed country. It has given me a far greater understanding and appreciation of the healthcare system we have here in Australia too.”
For more information about the Summer Institute click here.