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NMSU students build bridge, goodwill in small, Mexican village

Undaunted by U.S. State Department warnings about travel into Mexico, a group made up of 12 New Mexico State University students, advisers and community volunteers gathered their resolve to journey to the remote village of Las Boquillas, Chihuahua, to literally build a bridge that fostered friendships, gratitude and monsoon-season accessibility to its residents. The bridge enabled the villagers to traverse a stream that floods for several weeks each year, isolating them from food and other necessities.

Top row (left to right): Engineering Technology and Surveying Engineering (ETSE) Department Head Sonya Cooper, environmental engineering graduate student Victor Chavez, ETSE Professor Kenny Stevens, Wanda Tamez, Mechanical ET student Kenly Maldonado, President of Satevo Mario Alvarez Tarango, Director of Public Works for Satevo Jesus Manuel Lozano, chemical engineering student Alexandru Boje, electrical engineering technology student Dorothy Lanphere, Electrical Engineering student David Jurado, Mechanical Engineering student Steven Wooten, Elementary Education student Patricia Wooten. Bottom row: electrical engineering student Cesar Villasana, local mason Carmelo Gonzales, local mason Abel Abelardo, local mason Reynaldo Lozano. In the background, chief mason for Satevo, Jose Duran.

The approximately 150-resident village of Las Boquillas is about 30 miles from the larger community of Satevo, which is about 80 miles southwest of Chihuahua City. Both towns are in the municipality of Satevo, the equivalent of a county.

For five days, during the group's spring break from classes, they worked alongside four skilled workmen from Satevo, ignoring sore muscles, fatigue and emerging blisters. They mixed and transported by hand 36-square-yards of concrete, about the equivalent of four trucks' worth to build a 180-foot-long, 12-foot-wide, 4-foot-tall, ford-bridge in Las Boquillas. A ford-bridge is commonly used in arid lands and serves as a bridge during dry season and a ford that can be easily crossed when the waters from seasonal rains begin to flow.

Initially, the Mexican workers were skeptical about the students' real intentions and believed "we were there to party on spring break," said Kenny Stevens, professor of engineering technology and the group's adviser.

"But we began moving things for them and asking what they needed us to do. It took a day before they believed we were really there to work," Stevens said.

The students themselves had doubts and balked at the hard, physical labor, he said. But soon after, the students started having wheel-barrow races while moving material. The sun would set on them many times as they labored to finish the bridge.

"It was a lot of hard work," said César Villasana, a senior in electrical engineering who recently joined the group. "But nobody slacked off - everyone worked hard all day. I've worked on community service projects like Habitat for Humanity, but I've never done something like this before."

As the work progressed, the townspeople began coming by each day, growing soon to a group of about 30 spectators. Some of them would bring food for the workers. A man even brought his donkey to see what these Americans were doing.

Hard labor was not all the students contributed, and their involvement in the project actually began last year in a visit to Satevo during spring break when the students identified 20 possible projects and chose the bridge project as the one that was most needed, most achievable and the one that could help the most people.

They made detailed measurements, and with the head of public works for the town, sat at a table in a local restaurant and drew out informal plans and material specifications on a napkin. Subsequently, they spent many hours making formal plans for the project.

"I spent six hours a week, outside of group meetings, working on plans and others in our group put in long hours, as well," said Dorothy Lanphere, a senior in engineering technology. "It was a great opportunity and we learned things we couldn't learn in a classroom."

In addition, the students held bake sales, car washes and other fund raising efforts throughout the year to save $4,000 to purchase the cement and rebar used to construct the bridge. The Rotary Club of Las Cruces-Rio Grande, Dr. George D. Alexander, Bill and Judy Stevens, D'Alamo Welding, Inc., Elks Lodge #408 of Las Vegas, N.M., and Arizona Public Service also helped with funding for the project.

"It was an amazing opportunity for the students," said Sonya Cooper, engineering technology and surveying engineering department head. "They had the opportunity to design a bridge, estimate and procure the materials, plan the sequencing of work and logistics. And best of all, they got to work and live closely with the townspeople and see it all come together."

Stevens and Cooper accompanied the group of seven engineering students and an education student. They were joined by community volunteers Wanda Tamez, and Jean Fulton, executive director of the El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro Trail Association, a group devoted to preserving sites on the Camino Real. Satevo is located on the historic trail.

"They learned how to build forms and tie rebar and work with the components used in reinforced concrete," Copper said. "They also learned how to use a water-level tube - a plastic tube filled with water that can be stretched over a long distance to determine level. It was all very low-tech, but these methods have been working for more than 200 years."

The municipality of Satevo provided four skilled workers who transported materials to the bridge site and began digging the foundation a week in advance. Their progress was slowed when they hit groundwater while digging the foundation, requiring design modifications and additional time to pump the water out. The bridge deck was not yet completed at the end of the week, but the workers will complete the deck.

"This experience did a lot for the image of Mexico with all of the violence happening right now," said David Jurado, electrical engineering student. "But we were treated so well and the people were so grateful. You can't have an experience like this and not feel good about it."
The day the group left, the head of the Satevo municipality thanked them with tears in his eyes and invited them to a pig roast at his home.

It won't be the last time he sees them.

The students have been invited to return after the school semester ends in May to see the finished bridge and join in a celebration.

All of the students are members of Engineers without Borders, an organization that focuses on projects that are sustainable and can be maintained by the communities where they are located. Although this was not an official EWB project, the group plans to return for future projects, possibly two a year.

"This was a great start. The best part was having the opportunity to see how it brought out the best in the students and faculty. We hope to be doing these projects for many years to come," said Lanphere, president and founder of NMSU EWB.

"The town really needs a sewer system," said Stevens who is planning to spend the spring 2010 semester in Satevo on sabbatical. "Even a low-tech, simple system would cost $50,000-$60,000, which is a bit ambitious for us. We'd like to do something involving renewable technology, perhaps utilizing solar pumps."

"It was awesome to do something to help people who are in need," said Villasana who grew up in Juárez. "I could have done other things over spring break, but you have to sacrifice something to serve others."

The NMSU EWB chapter is raising funds for future projects. For more information, email eng-dean@nmsu.edu.