ewb volunteers in training

From Cambridge to Cusco - a graduate volunteer's journey

Recently completing her manufacturing engineering degree, Priya Khetarpal has chosen to embark on a six month Engineers Without Borders (EWB) placement in Peru. Blogging about her experiences for E&T Magazine, here she talks about preparing for the big adventure.

Introduction

I’m Priya, a newly graduated manufacturing engineer of Cambridge University and I’m taking a relatively unusual route into the real world. In a few days time, I’ll be heading to Cusco in Peru to carry out a six month Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB-UK) placement with the ProWorld Foundation.  

Thanks to the generosity of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE), Cambridge University Engineering Society (CUES) and St. John’s College, the fundraising leg of my placement flowed fairly smoothly and I am now ready to head off to the other side of the world. Well, I do still need to somehow fit more than half a year’s worth of supplies into one 65L rucksack…

Making a difference

Having spent three months in rural Kenya in 2010, people often assume that surviving Peru will be an easy task in comparison. However, despite South America’s rapid development in recent years, Peru lags behind many of its neighbours and a third of its population still live below the poverty line.  

My placement aims to help these people and is predominantly concerned with improving the design and manufacturing processes associated with making ceramic cooking stoves. The ultimate objective is to increase the quality and output of the products in order to reach more homes, and as such minimise indoor air pollution – an often forgotten killer.  

As with much development work, placements do have a tendency to change direction pretty dramatically, so I'll keep you updated on specific activities once I arrive.

Pre-departure training

A couple of weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to attend EWB-UK’s pre-departure training course along with two dozen other volunteers who will be jetting off to countries around the globe. The course involved six days of intensive workshops and lectures – but not the kind you get in university.  

Although activities included some expected items such as first aid, health and safety and problem solving, we were also treated to a variety of sessions involving scenarios such as bartering and market trading, gingerly stepping through a mock minefield and navigating an armed checkpoint simulation.  

One of the most memorable workshops involved the placement volunteers being split into two groups for a role play – I acted as someone from a culture who could not acknowledge the opposite gender and could only talk to the female members of the other group by answering “yes” if they asked questions with a smile on their face and “no” otherwise. Watching my fellow volunteers slowly figure out the nature of the language barriers was priceless.

Motivations

A session at the course on motivations made me consider why I was so passionate about doing the placement. I found that I related to many of my peers – of course we all wanted to help people, but each individual had different more selfish priorities, to learn about a new culture, see the world, apply their skills to field work. Mine were a combination of these and more.  

Once we had all volunteered our answers and the flipchart was flooded with descriptions representing our collective motivations, we watched as EWB-UK ceo Andrew Lamb struck off each word in turn, explaining that every single one of our motivations would be questioned.

Learning experiences

Above all, as insightful as the training was through learning from experts in the field, it was the opportunity to meet other like-minded people and learn from their experiences that I really cherished. This is the dominant reason why I count myself lucky to have been awarded such an amazing opportunity – because the network of volunteers, development workers and local people that I’ll get to know along the way have already proven to be some of the most interesting and passionate people I have ever met.  

In 2010, I spent ten weeks working in a rural Kenyan school, and with no disrespect to my education, I can safely say that it was the greatest learning experience of my life. I cannot wait to find out what experiences Peru has in store for me.  

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