Feature Stories

Engineering, Social Work Students Join Forces on Innovative Projects Abroad

Mary Lou Ralls Newman kneeling at water faucet on outside of concrete structure


June 17, 2014

In fall 2009, nearly 30 years after receiving her first civil engineering degree from The University of Texas at Austin, Mary Lou Ralls Newman (BS 1981, MS 1984) once again sat in a UT classroom — but this time for an entirely different reason.

Newman was attending the first-ever student presentations for a pilot program called Projects for Underserved Communities (PUC), a service-learning collaboration between UT's International Office, Cockrell School of Engineering, and the School of Social Work. For two semesters, a select group of engineering and social work students brainstorm sustainable development projects that will benefit under-served communities across the globe. If their projects are approved by the Service Learning Advisory Board, the students then travel to the countries to implement them the following summer.

A member of the department's Academy of Distinguished Alumni, Newman had heard about PUC through engineering professors Sharon Wood and Janet Ellzey, now vice provost of international programs at UT. The Academy had been looking to participate in international outreach, and the innovative PUC program fit the bill.

"I was very impressed with the students' progress to date and their enthusiasm for the projects," Newman recalls. "I was hooked!"

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the PUC program, which continues to hone students' project-management and cross-cultural communication skills through a unique, multidisciplinary curriculum each year. In May, we sent three student teams out to complete their projects at sites in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Tanzania. For the first time, Newman — a former bridge engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation — will serve as a technical advisor, traveling to Tanzania to guide a team as it attempts to build a water-catchment system at a local grade school.

The 2014 Costa Rica team will be partnering with a local nonprofit to build a set of bleachers for a community center, and the Nicaragua team will be constructing a flush toilet for a pop-up medical clinic. Past projects include sawdust stoves, a latrine building, and solar-powered water systems in locations like Ghana, Papua New Guinea, and Peru.

"PUC really came about because of student interest," says Janet Ellzey, UT's vice provost for international programs. "We have a generation of students with a tremendous social conscience, and they want to do something positive for society."

One of the most revolutionary parts of the PUC program is the sheer amount of ownership the students have over their projects. From idea formation to budgeting, fundraising to communicating with locals in their respective countries, each team is responsible for getting their project off — and on — the ground. Another key responsibility: gaining cultural competency that will enable the teams to work smoothly and respectfully within communities much different from their own. That's where the social work students come in.

"It really is the social workers who ensure the project's success," Newman says. "It is critical to not go into a community and think we know everything. It's not about what we think they need; it's about determining and working toward what the community actually needs."

Newman and her husband, Terry, are so passionate about the PUC mission, they've recently established an endowment to help with future student and project costs. They dream of a day when we will be able to make even more of an impact by implementing PUC projects in more under-served communities across the globe.

Written by Jordan Schraeder, International Office