March 1, 1997: Headlines: Engineering: Mechanical Engineering: ASME: Mechanical engineer and Peace Corps volunteer Margaret Meany with residents of a Honduran community to which she helped bring clean water

Peace Corps Online: Peace Corps News: Library: January 23, 2005: Index: PCOL Exclusive: Engineering and Energy : Archive of Stories: March 1, 1997: Headlines: Engineering: Mechanical Engineering: ASME: Mechanical engineer and Peace Corps volunteer Margaret Meany with residents of a Honduran community to which she helped bring clean water

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Mechanical engineer and Peace Corps volunteer Margaret Meany with residents of a Honduran community to which she helped bring clean water

Mechanical engineer and Peace Corps volunteer Margaret Meany with residents of a Honduran community to which she helped bring clean water

Mechanical engineer and Peace Corps volunteer Margaret Meany with residents of a Honduran community to which she helped bring clean water

Finding a Niche in the Peace Corps
By Brandon Chase

Mechanical engineer and Peace Corps volunteer Margaret Meany with residents of a Honduran community to which she helped bring clean water.

Matt Stacy, a 1990 mechanical engineering graduate of the University of Vermont, Burlington, did it straight out of school. On the flip side, Margaret Meany, who graduated with a ME degree from the University of Rhode Island, Kingston in 1987, waited several years to make the decision.

The ranks of the Peace Corps are not a common place for mechanical engineering graduates of the '90's, but both Stacy and Meany are glad they did it.

For Stacy, "It was sort of a fluke. I saw a slide show given by a Peace Corps recruiter, and it looked like something I'd be interested in." As a result, he spent three years working on irrigation projects in rural Thailand.

Meany also submitted an application during college, but withdrew it in favor of taking a job with a small firm working on hospital ventilation systems. Four years later she decided to reapply.

"It's a giant step you're not really sure you want to take," says Meany. But she eventually thought, "If I'm gonna do it, I'd better go do it."

Following a lengthy application process she was placed in Honduras where she helped bring clean running water to rural communities.

Peace Corps engineering projects in Honduras include construction of reserve tanks such as this one where water is collected before being distributed to a community below.

Stacy and Meany are just two of some 200 MEs who have found a use for their skills through the Peace Corps in the past decade. Most work on water projects (24 percent) or as math or science instructors in secondary schools (47 percent).

After turning down an assignment that would have seen him teaching industrial arts in a high school, Stacy accepted a post at a Thai government office in the Province of Roiet, where he spent most of his time working with local communities.

A typical project saw him helping a group of 30 families irrigate a 10-acre plot so they could grow vegetables year-round, both for nutrition and additional income. Previously, a government agency had drilled a well in the community but failed to follow through on the project. Stacy helped the villagers access grant money to restart the project and then oversaw its completion. He also selected plans for a steel and concrete water tank that was built on the highest point in the village, so gravity can be used to distribute the water. A small pump fills the tank with well-water and community members can control its distribution to the fields through PVC pipes.

At any given time Stacy worked on three or four such projects. He had a room and an office in Roiet, but much of his time was spent on site, staying with one community for several days before bicycling to another.

Working to reduce field erosion, Matt Stacy (far left) performs a survey with technicians from a Thai soil conservation office.

The support given by the Thai government office added to Stacy's experience. "You really have to define your own job when you get there," he says, pleased that his office gave him the flexibility to do just that.

To drum up projects for himself, Stacy took advantage of an old-fashioned, yet efficient, communications network in Thailand. Once a month each province holds a meeting with county representatives from within the province to discuss national issues. The representatives then return to their counties and disperse news to village headmen, who, in turn, report back to their villages.

Right, workers lay irrigation lines for a demonstration project in integrated agriculture (veggies, fish, pigs, and chickens).

"What worked well for me," says Stacy, "was to go to the county meetings where all the village headmen gathered, introduce myself, tell them what my skills were, and make it known that I was happy to work with them." Afterwards, village headmen would approach Stacy to discuss potential projects.
"Fairly Easy Life"

Unlike Stacy, Meany didn't have to drum up her own business, as she worked within an established program, but she too found flexibility in her role as a Peace Corps volunteer.

From 1993 to 1995, Meany worked for a sanitation and water systems office under the Honduran Ministry of Health. The agency improves the health of rural communities by installing gravity-fed running water systems, providing clean water for drinking and cooking.

Working and living out of an office in Santa Rosa, a town that had running water and electricity "most of the time," was a "fairly easy life," according to Meany.

The office staffs some twenty engineers and promoters (liaisons between communities and the agency), including about five Peace Corps volunteers. Communities interested in having a water system approach the office and after a promoter visits the village and approves the project, an engineer is assigned.

"I'd spend half of my week in the office doing design and paperwork and then the other half I would spend out in the field, overseeing construction, solving problems as they would come up," she said.

Like Stacy, Meany would often stay overnight overseeing projects, but the commute wasn't as simple as hopping on a bicycle. Her farthest project was on the border of El Salvador, 100 km away, but even travelling to closer sites could be an all-day affair. Often Meany would hitchhike or take a bus as far as she could before catching a ride on a busito, or small van, which would generally drop her off within 10 km of her destination. From there she would walk over mountains and across rivers to reach the community.

Most projects involved finding a relatively clean stream above the elevation of the community, building a storage tank just above the community and running a PVC pipeline between the two. Prior to having a new water system installed, residents of many communities had to carry water from streams sometimes miles away. Others had streams running through their communities that were too small or too dirty.

Neither Meany nor Stacy felt that their engineering skills were taxed by their projects. For example, Meany would calculate distances and elevations from survey information and size pipes accordingly.
Basic Math

Although the calculations involved didn't surpass basic math skills, Meany found she used her degree heavily. "How much did I use my thermodynamics class?" she asks rhetorically, "Not at all. But at the same time, my degree was valuable because it taught me problem solving, and I did a lot of that."

Stacy describes his experiences sizing pipes, selecting pumps and the like as "not too strenuous on the engineering," but he appreciated the opportunity to work on construction with the locals (who supplied the brunt of the labor for the projects) and to learn about agriculture.

Even so, Stacy thinks there is a lot of room for MEs in the Peace Corps. "Once you get there," he says, "your host country has more control over you than the Peace Corps does, and if you have a good relationship with your office you can pretty much work on whatever sorts of projects you like." As examples he mentions a project in the area promoting fisheries and another building methane-digesters that use pig-farm waste to generate electricity. "You can get as high-tech as you want," he says.

Two years is the standard service time, but with agreement from the Peace Corps and his host agency, Stacy extended his stay a year.

"At the end of two years I felt like I was just getting effective," he says, "I felt like I had just been through an on-the-job training program and if I quit then I'd be cheating my employer."
"Incredible Opportunity"

Of course his decision was also affected by the fact that he was enjoying his stay. "You spend a lot of time just developing relationships with people and doing what they do, growing rice, which was really an incredible opportunity. It was kind of like being able to step back in time 50 years," he says.

Meany, on the other hand, worked with communities as part of a team, and if she has one regret about her Peace Corps experience it is that the relationships she was able to develop with community members were limited. She interacted heavily with neighbors and co-workers in Santa Rosa, but in the field where she oversaw construction, promoters did most of the community liaison work.

However, Meany derived satisfaction from the tangibility of her work. Peace Corps volunteers working on community education or awareness projects often don't see the results of their work because of the incremental changes involved. In contrast, says Meany, "I had tanks and things I had built in communities that were happy to have running water."
Taking Out the Sting

One point both agree on is that the culture shock upon leaving the Peace Corps is much worse than the arrival. Before arriving at a specific assignment, every volunteer goes through a three-month group introductory session in his or her host country, including job and language training. This introduction takes the sting out of the transition.

"Peace Corps really pampers you on the way in. You have this incredible introduction, you're with a group of friends, and you have this strong support group," says Stacy, "But once you say your goodbyes on your way out, you're pretty much on your own."

Meany echoes that sentiment. "When you go there, everything's new. You have a new job, you have new friends, you're speaking a new language. There's so much to think about and so much to do that you don't really feel the culture shock."

Not so for the return, she says. "Home is a place that you know well and where you feel comfortable, and yet when you get there it's not what you're used to and it's not comfortable, so just on a basic level, it's all wrong."
Needs and Wants

In an interesting twist, luxuries of the industrial world often play a significant but unexpected role in the transition. Stacy reports missing the landscape and the hardwood floors of Vermont, but not the creature comforts. "You learn to get by with a lot less," he says, "You learn how little you need."

Luxuries proved to be a source of irritation for Meany upon her return. "You come home and all of these people are saying that they need things," she says. "And what they really mean is that they want them and you realize the entire culture doesn't understand the difference between need and want."

Regardless, Meany wouldn't trade her experience for anything. "Definitely, I think, the hardest parts of my life and some of the most wonderful too, were in Honduras," she says.

She may not have honed any technical engineering skills in Honduras, but she did acquire countless memories and a new level of self-confidence. If confronting a tough situation these days, she recalls her accomplishments in Honduras and thinks, "Whatever it is, I can get through it."

Stacy too acquired a new outlook from his service. "Perhaps it steered me toward alternative things and made me realize there were other options beside the nine-to-five world," says Stacy, who after doing some carpentry in the Grand Tetons and driving a school bus has started his own business, Prometheus' Forge Ltd., South Royalton, Vt., designing suspension parts for mountain bicycles.

Meany now works for a Boston-based company that does energy audits on large industrial facilities, trying to decrease their energy consumption.

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Story Source: ASME

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