One year ago, University of British Columbia engineering physics student Harish Raisinghani had never heard of Engineers Without Borders. After seeing a campus poster publicizing a talk by an EWB member, he went along and decided to join the organ...
One year ago, University of British Columbia engineering physics student Harish Raisinghani had never heard of Engineers Without Borders. After seeing a campus poster publicizing a talk by an EWB member, he went along and decided to join the organization. Engineers Without Borders was formed four years ago to help developing countries gain access to technology.
“It was intriguing that I could do something like this: the idea that you can use engineering to help the lives of other people. I had never thought about that,” he recalls.
The 21-year old, fourth-year student from Surrey, B.C. signed up with the Scala project in the Philippines. The program’s goal is to train poor 15-24 year olds in computer skills to enable them to pass their country’s word-processing test. “Once you pass that, your opportunities for employment just skyrocket,” explains Raisinghani.
Before leaving for the Philippines, Raisinghani spent six weeks at Vancouver’s Dr. Peter Centre for people with HIV/AIDS, where he honed his skills working with people needing basic instruction. Raisinghani worked one-on-one with people, teaching e-mailing and word-processing. EWB is now working with UBC’s Learning Exchange to develop similar programs in Vancouver’s impoverished Downtown Eastside.
In May, Raisinghani arrived in Balanga, the first of two Philippines cities where the team set up computer centres. Balanga is an industrial city of about 40,000 people located near Manila. Despite having been prepared by spending two weeks in cross-cultural training at EWB’s Toronto office, Raisinghani experienced profound culture shock.
Working with donated used computers collected in Canada, he and his colleagues tried to begin a six-week program teaching trainers from the Philippines’ government department of social welfare and development how to use programs such as Microsoft Word and Powerpoint. Their timing was far from ideal: the country’s elections had just taken place and with no funding for government workers until a new Governor arrived, Raisinghani spent the first two weeks in limbo.
“Trying to stick to our six-week Canadian time schedule was a major challenge,” he says. The delay, combined with the more relaxed Filipino work ethic and the students’ lack of computer knowledge, was frustrating: “We went there to teach computer skills to people, some of whom had never actually seen a computer. We take it for granted that we can use computers, but we found that for some of them, just opening up Windows was a huge challenge.” Other Filipinos, however, were college graduates with abundant computer experience, so Raisinghani had to teach a wide range of skills. “I remember being utterly frustrated at times,” he says. Completing the program came down to constantly reminding the trainers about the EWB volunteers’ impending departure.
Raisinghani and his team regrouped before taking their program to Alaminos, a city which is centred on farming and fishing but is beginning to industrialize. Working with two trainers, they took a more goal-oriented approach. “We emphasized getting things done on time, setting deadlines three days ahead of when we actually considered the deadline to be,” he says. The approach worked well. An EWB coordinator will follow up the program for the next two years.
Back at UBC, Raisinghani is unsure of his future career direction, but his Filipino experience will have a major impact on his goals : “It brought about a whole different perspective on how you can use engineering; I came from thinking that engineering was specific — you go into an industry and develop products or do research.”
Right now, he is carrying out presentations on his Philippines project, collecting computers and helping organize EWB’s 2005 national conference in Vancouver.
Heather Kent is a freelance writer based in Vancouver.