“Glue the pipe together here,” he indicates with one hand, “and angle the 90-degree elbow up, like so.” He tweaks the joint, steps back to admire his work, and proclaims, “That’s a finished product.”

Posed over a jumble of PVC pipes, brackets, angles, elbows and drills, Carl Ladd resembles more of a mad scientist than an International Rescue and Relief (IRR) contract instructor. The contraption at his feet seems like a prop from some fantasy film instead of a water pump.

Ladd and the four students who assisted in assembly crowd around the pump and discuss the project—how it is both affordable and sustainable; how it connects to a filtration system to provide fresh, clean water; how it shapes the future of community development.

They soon join the other four students inside who have completed the frame for a Biosand filter, the second half of the water system. Constructed from a blue 55-gallon drum and PVC pipe, the filter is also inexpensive and easy to build. Connected to the pump, this system can channel water from a natural source and purify it through the sand and gravel inside the drum, which contains natural microorganisms capable of consuming pathogens and, after one year of maturity, viruses too.

If this technology is shaping the future of water sustainability, then these eight IRR students are shaping the future of relief work. Alongside instructors Aaron and Lauren Kent, this team will spend 89 days in Nicaragua, living, learning and lending the expertise they have spent years cultivating in Union College’s unique Bachelor of Science program.

Over the course of the semester abroad, students will learn survival skills, participate in rural clinics, and volunteer with local EMS (Emergency Medical Services) crews, all while adapting to a foreign culture and language and taking course work in Emergency Care, Global Health, Travel and Tropical Medicine, and Expeditionary Leadership.

“This semester in Nicaragua is the seminal experience of IRR,” says trip leader, instructor and Union alum Aaron Kent. “Everything they have learned over the years leads to this.”

Kent has led the trip to Nicaragua five times and says each one is different. This unpredictability is often due to the varying number of students in attendance. Compared to the 16 from last year, this is the smallest group yet.

“There are unique challenges with so few people,” observes Kent. “This is your social group. This is your family. If one loses patience with another, it has to be resolved, because we will be together nearly every day for three months.”

He assesses the group and smiles. “Social dynamics are always unpredictable.”

These students, however, usually present solidarity in their interactions. Juniors Zack Leyda and Josh Wahl joke about coastal survival, which they claim is less survival and more relaxation. “Sipping coconuts, getting a tan, catching some fish,” says Leyda. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”

“It’s gonna be a dream,” laughs Wahl.

“Survival is all about locating food and water,” Kent agrees, his hand straying toward the communal bag of M&M’s. “It’s nothing but foraging. But on the coast, everything you need is right here. Food, water, shelter—it’s nice.”  He pauses then chuckles, “Ocean survival, however, is the worst experience known to man.”

The ocean survival experience includes the 24 hours students spend together on a life raft in open water. “It’s nothing but rocking and seasickness,” Kent says, grimacing at the prospect.

Once the eight days of survival training are finished, students shift into the medical phase of their semester. This year, the group will be exploring a new region along the Caribbean Coast in the most northwestern part of Nicaragua. The North Atlantic Autonomous Region is one of the poorest and most undeveloped in the country. For two weeks the group will travel by boat through the dense mangrove swamps, delivering medical aid to indigenous groups living in that territory.

Senior Joellyn Sheehy, who will graduate this year with an emphasis in pre-medicine, is eager for the opportunities and exposure this experience will present. “I want a better understanding of what development work looks like,” says Sheehy, pausing from her drill work on the biosand filter. “And I want to learn the strategies for implementing it.”

Other students express more interest in the opportunities following the medical excursion. Newlyweds Dillon and Erica Whittaker are both eager to work with the EMS crews based out of Managua and Grenada.

“The experience will be unlike anything in Nebraska,” says Erica, who recently quit her job as a paramedic for Midwest Medical. “There will be such a diverse range of patients and cases that one never sees in developed countries.”

For Dillon, this is the opportunity of a lifetime. “I’m just excited to travel,” he says. “I’ve never done anything like this.” Not only will Dillon be on foreign soil for the first time in his life, he will also be learning and practicing valuable career skills there. “I’ll get the experience I need by working with the fire crews in Managua,” he adds. “That will give me an edge when I graduate.”

Gaining an edge is an important aspect for IRR students. Graduates of the program are offered such a diverse range of experiences that they are able to pursue careers in many fields. One recent graduate is a crisis counselor for an outdoor program. Another is an investigator of accident claims for an insurance company. Still another works for ADRA. Many pursue graduate degrees and join non-government organizations working in development.

Ladd, for example, has participated in or led sponsored water-based development projects in 15 nations, including Sudan, China and Romania. It is because of his passion and experience that Union College brought him back to help prepare the students for their semester abroad.

Even though these students may not build a water system in Nicaragua, Ladd believes it is important for them to learn appropriate technology for sustainable development. Their careers may depend on it.

But even greater than the technology, says Ladd, is the mentality of those implementing the technology. “I help students recognize that what most Americans view as ‘problems’ abroad are opportunities to build a relationship and lend our unique expertise.”


Author Michael Rohm is a senior at Union College.
For more information on the IRR program check out www.ucollege.edu/irr.