JAMES CLEMENTS (LEFT) AND JUAN VILLANUEVA of Loyola Marymount University’s Engineers Without Borders Chapter will travel to Africa to take part in a social justice project. The students plan to conduct surveys and assessments to determine what is needed to build a water conveyance system for blind and visually impaired students. (Argonaut photo by T.W. Brown)

Applicants to Loyola Marymount University (LMU) learn before they enrolled at the Westchester school of higher education that they will be expected to partake in events and projects that have a strong social justice component.

Very soon, a group of two young men and a young woman from the university’s engineering program will seek to apply what they have learned in class to assist a community in a far-away continent to access a precious natural resource that so many take for granted.

Undergraduate students from the university’s Frank R. Seaver College of Engineering will journey to the continent of Africa on Tuesday, July 28th to lay the groundwork for an ambitious humanitarian project. The students, who belong to the nearly one-year-old campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders, will begin the preliminary work of creating a new water conveyance system in the republic of Malawi in southeast Africa.

The beneficiaries of the water project will be students at the Malingunde School for the Blind, who are forced to travel nearly three miles for potable drinking water that is not contaminated.

The members of the traveling team, James Clements, Juan Villanueva and Katrina Regan gave The Argonaut their views on the project in interviews prior to their departure to Africa.

“It is a great accomplishment for our chapter, as well as for those who have helped to contribute to its success to date,” Regan wrote in an e-mail. “This trip to Malawi serves not only as an assessment which contributes toward a sustainable solution that is intimately tailored to the specific needs of this community, but also an opportunity to learn more about a culture and its people.”

For Villanueva, a sophomore, the voyage to Malawi also represents an opportunity to assist a village in need as well as travel to a distant land and to experience a new culture, which was something that he did not contemplate while growing up in Boyle Heights in East Los Angeles.

“People in my neighborhood don’t really get a lot of chances to take trips like this, and I’ve wanted to be different,” he said. “I’ve always liked to help people, and I’m really excited about going.”

Two of Villanueva’s friends recently returned from Africa and he says their stories helped to fuel his desire to travel to the second largest continent in the world.

Clements, who will be a junior this fall and is the project manager of the initiative, said that he feels a certain responsibility to help a community that is in need of gaining better access to one of the most vital resources on the planet — clean water.

“I just think that it’s the right thing to do; it’s the ethical thing to do,” he said.

“I want to be a member of the global community,” the engineering student added. “In doing so, I need to improve the health of the (Malawi students). I know that it’s a big, overwhelming thing, but that’s something that I want to work toward.”

Professor Jeremy Pal, an assistant professor of civil engineering at LMU who has visited Africa several times, will also be accompanying the students on the humanitarian trip.

“I chose civil engineering and environmental science because of my desire to help the world solve the environmental challenges that many of us face on a daily basis,” said Pal, who was one of the contributing authors on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Changes (IPCC), an international collaboration of scientists that shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

“We don’t see these kinds of problems in the United States that often, but Africa faces problems that most of us can’t comprehend,” the professor continued. “And like James said, if we can help, we certainly should.”

Richard Plumb, the dean of the school of engineering, concurs with Pal.

“If you think about engineering, it’s applying technology to help mankind,” Plumb said. “These students will be combining theory and practice (of their discipline) along with our university’s mission, which is ‘the service of faith and the promotion of justice.’”

The young engineers settled on Africa in September 2008, the first year of the club’s inception.

“It’s nearly unheard of for an Engineers Without Borders club to go to a foreign country within a year,” Clements pointed out.

Traveling to Malawi was suggested during a discussion with his grandmother, because Clements’ grandfather had once been the U.S. consul general to the African country. Assisted by several of his grandfather’s old contacts, Clements has been corresponding via e-mail with government officials in Malawi to establish a rapport and lay the groundwork for the water project.

“One thing that I’ve learned about the African culture that’s different from ours is that they really have to know you and trust you before you can do anything with them,” Clements said.

The project for the school for the blind was one of many that were offered to the students.

“We decided to go with the school because they were the people with the least probability of getting help from others,” Clements explained. “The government would have eventually helped them, but they told us that it would probably take about five years.”

Nicholas Karno, who is a member of the Venice Neighborhood Council’s Environmental Committee, noted the vast difficulties regarding water supplies that many societies still face in the 21st century.

“There are still a number of populations with very little access to clean drinking water, and in the United States, we have almost the opposite problem,” Karno, an environmental attorney, said. “Here, we waste enormous amounts of water.”

Villanueva said that whenever he speaks to teens in his neighborhood about staying in school, he discusses the hardships that the visually impaired students in Malawi must endure.

“I always give the example of the students at the Malingunde School and how they struggle to stay in school despite all of their challenges,” he said. “It really hurts when I see someone here not taking advantage of what we have and the students there have to walk so far just for (potable) water.”

The engineering students will be in Malawi for approximately one week, where they will conduct an extensive assessment of the parameters of the water project, including research and surveying the landscape, meeting the local leaders, school officials and students and establishing the necessary bonds of trust that Clements discussed.

Upon their return, the university has pledged to help the students raise the necessary funds for the construction of the water system, and Clements, Villanueva and Regan hope to return to Malawi to complete the project before they graduate.

Pal, who completed his undergraduate studies at LMU, says the trip to Africa and its mission is reflective of the student body that the university tends to attract.

“I think that it’s wonderful that there are students here at LMU who are interested in these sorts of things,” said Pal. “I think that’s what makes us different from many other universities, and I’m really happy to be part of it.”