Engineering students restore Costa Rican community’s gathering place
During the 10-day service-learning trip, the seven students and their professor lived out ‘Ut Prosim’ and worked through a language barrier.
In a Costa Rican town home to about 4,500 people, a long steel beam holds up the roof of the local community center. At its focal point is a prominent Virginia Tech logo. Around it are the names of people who recently made memories to last a lifetime.
It’s a permanent reminder 3,500 miles from Blacksburg of the university’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).
At the heart of Guayabo in the Santa Cruz District sits a well-loved and well-worn community center. Built in 1995, the yellow building has served many functions over the years including housing the town's school. Now, it serves as a venue for weddings, birthday parties, festivals, and more. But over the past few years, the center has seen fewer events.
Dario Bravo, a Guayabo native and contractor, thinks the lack of interest stemmed from safety issues as the building declined. The center’s roof was held up with rotting wood, and its kitchen walls rusted. It had no form of security. Altogether, it made for an expensive fix.
“Economically, it’s difficult for people in the community to raise money to make something like this happen, so it’s very helpful to have outside support,” Bravo said through a translator.
Enter Virginia Tech students. Outfitted with personal protective equipment, power tools, and a semester’s worth of preparation, the group of engineers came with one goal: restore the community’s gathering place. They found support in Luz Gomez Serrano, the town’s former school director and current community leader.
“We have had some small changes since it was built, but basically nothing major, which is why it is important to make the changes now,” said Serrano.
Preparations for the Hokies’ 10-day visit to Costa Rica in May started in the fall of 2022. Charles Smith, a construction engineering and management professor of practice at the Myers-Lawson School of Construction, guided the students through hands-on cultural experiences that would also leave a tangible impact. Seven students within the school and across the College of Engineering signed on for the opportunity:
- Jacob Brown, a construction engineering and management alumnus and current Vecillio construction engineering and management master’s student
- Andrew Bates, a construction engineering and management senior
- Kwizera Josephat, a construction engineering and management senior
- Blake Lowery, a civil and environmental engineering junior
- Ebony Shields, a mechanical engineering sophomore
- Griffen Salvini, a construction engineering and management senior
- Ryan Vogt, a construction engineering and management senior
Three times a week, as part of a spring course leading up to the trip, the group combed through project details, from materials to building dimensions. With help from Blacksburg nonprofit Peacework, translator Jess Falla introduced the group to Serrano and Bravo. The students learned not only about the community center but also the spirit of the people. Serrano described the women’s group that meets there. The students were determined to make the center better for the community, and Bravo could see their commitment.
“From the beginning, I knew I was going to be involved in this project no matter what," said Bravo. “During the Zoom calls with the students, I realized how professional they are and that this is going to be a good project.”
In May, with months of preparation under their belt, the students began their journey abroad. But it wasn’t until they saw the building up close, surrounded by lush mountains and volcanoes, that all the pieces started fitting together.
Boots on the ground
Wasting no time on site, the students divided into two groups — one focused on replacing the center’s roof and kitchen area walls and the other on constructing a large security gate.
Relying heavily on Falla for translation, Smith and Bravo coordinated the group’s schedule. As the two moved more in step, they began to rely on their own broken English and elementary Spanish to create their own form of communication.
“It’s been a totally new experience working with a group of people that speaks another language,” said Bravo.
While the students got to work, so did the community, showing their gratitude and hospitality. A five-minute walk down the road, Alba Brenes, Bravo’s mother, spent each day in the kitchen with Serrano alongside her. Together, they made fresh meals and snacks for the hard-working crew. Between the homemade bread, fried plantains, locally grown vegetables, and freshly squeezed juice, every day’s delicacy was different from the day before.
As the days passed, the construction crew made significant progress, tearing down the old roof and walls, securing new railings, digging for the gate post foundations, and placing concrete. With each step came a learning opportunity, and often, a chance to try out new equipment. Bravo, focused on the overall project, sought out ways to keep the students engaged, letting each one take turns angle grinding or welding.
Smith maximized each of these learning moments for his students. Before leaving the hotel each morning, he walked them through the goals for the hours ahead. Once on the job site, he gave a safety briefing and highlighted potential challenges. During lunch, he spoke about the importance of getting to know the community and culture. And at dinner, he wrapped up the day with life lessons each student could take back home.
“This class is intended to not only get students outside of the classroom but to put them into an entirely different environment,” said Smith. “We're trying to embed them in the reality of the professional world while they're still students.”
Building community, one beam at a time
For the trip, the group worked with Peacework, which connects universities with international communities around the world for service-learning opportunities. Since 2014, Falla has served as a bridge between communities and students.
“One thing I think is really important when students go to another country that's not their own, is to really be immersed in the culture,” said Falla. “We have workshops where we talk with the students about any issues that may arrive from being in a different country.”
She’s known the people of Guayabo for years through other community projects and time spent there. During this trip, her first since the COVID-19 pandemic, she created opportunities for the students to experience Guayabo’s rich culture. They visited local restaurants, historical monuments, schools, farms, and locally owned shops. Some residents even opened their homes to host a barbecue or give tutorials on making tortillas and coffee.
“The food was amazing. It just reminded me of back home,” said Josephat, who spent his childhood in Tanzania. “The way they all share a love for each other and welcomed us with open arms. It was just like something from back home.”
By day 10, the language gaps still existed but felt like less of a barrier. The gate crew had successfully installed a gate for added security and began to work on replacing floorboards in another part of the building. The roof crew installed the new roof and kitchen walls as well as helped with installing new electrical units. The team celebrated each milestone along the way, including signing a metal beam that supports the new roof. It’s a change that the community knows will endure.
“It's been like a dream come true for them to have this work done,” said Serrano. “It's something that is not only for this generation but the generations to come.”
In the end, community members did what they do best — come together. A celebration on the last full day served as a reunion for everyone the students had met over the past 10 days. The trip was capped off with a construction-themed cake topped with paper saws, screws, and tape measures.
“This kind of support isn’t something easy to come by, " said Bravo. “I feel that I have a new group of friends.”
Making change possible through generosity
The trip, and its impact, would not have been possible without financial support, both for the students’ travel and the materials purchased for the project. Ahead of the trip, the students hosted several fundraisers including percentage nights and concessions sales. Many of the students’ family and friends sponsored the trip, in addition to corporate contributions. This trip was also supported with gifts given by hundreds of generous donors during Giving Day.
Building construction graduate Robert Wells ‘73, who supported the trip, is passionate about student opportunities abroad. He created the Robert H. and Janice G. Wells Outreach and Engagement Fund in 2014 to support these types of service-learning trips. He has previously traveled abroad with students helping perform similar work in different countries.
“We have seen firsthand the impact these opportunities have on students,” said Wells. “It is not something that can be replicated, so we encourage others to give towards this high-impact experience for students.”
Maintaining the momentum of Ut Prosim
Smith is already looking ahead to the 2024 project, which puts a new team of students in Costa Rica, just a 20-minute drive from the community center. This time, they will be installing a playground for a local school.
Smith is currently recruiting students to participate, but he has an important message for them.
“It's not just vacation. You will be pushed,” he said. “If you want to really test yourself and grow, this is a trip for you. There's real work that has to be done, and you have to be prepared for some challenges, both as a group and individually.”
Students say those challenges helped shape them for the better and carved the way for a life-changing experience.
"I don't know how I'm going to explain to my family or my peers or friends and colleagues and people at Virginia Tech, the impact that this has made on me,” Brown said while still in Costa Rica. “My mind's been open this whole time and just to have the happiness and pure joy that these people have living day in and day out.”
Costa Ricans call this joy pura vida, or pure life. For Bates, the saying is one he has decided to carry with him every day with a tattoo on his arm of the phrase. It will serve as a permanent reminder, just like the one etched in steel 3,500 miles away for the Guayabo community.
If you are interested in financially contributing to the spring 2024 service-learning program, learning more about the program, or taking the course, visit the Global Education Office website.