When NYU Abu Dhabi freshman Eder Munya journeyed to Sri Lanka during spring break to build a community center alongside his fellow engineering classmates, he found himself receiving help from some unexpected but enthusiastic volunteers.
"The locals were helping us with the manual labor," said Munya, who traveled to Pattayanwatta, a village near Negombo, Sri Lanka, for the first trip of the recently launched NYUAD organization, Engineers for Social Impact — one of two trips to Sri Lanka offered by the University during spring break. The group, whose mission is to start sustainable projects that respond to local challenges, put its concept of social responsibility into action during the five-day build under the guidance of NYUAD Technical Manager and Instructor of Engineering Philip Panicker.
Most entertaining were the youngest members of the village, who were extremely curious and eager to help. Watching these budding construction workers scramble around to assist in the project proved an amusing sight. "The little kids were so cute trying to lift things," said Munya, laughing as he recounted seeing one child brave a particularly heavy tool in order to help.
Soon enough, however, the 50 or so students found themselves working just as hard. With a tightly maintained schedule of rigorous physical labor, the engineers rose at 7am every morning, ate breakfast at the hotel, and then traveled to the village in order to face a long day of work.
"We got there around 8am and just start stretching and getting ready to do work. And then we really worked for a good couple of hours, and then after a break we worked some more. Then we had lunch and worked some more," Munya said, chuckling. "Work was the key thing we were doing, but it was fun."
My trip to Sri Lanka wasn't about the country, but rather about the people. We broke stereotypes and understood the needs of 20 families who lost their homes. We built them hope and they built our knowledge and earned our respect.
Jobs included physical tasks such as getting and laying bricks, painting, and making cement. Although the work was vastly different from the usual mental challenges of an engineer's academic life, Munya said the experience was educational and fulfilling. "As an engineer, you need that," he said. "Because you need to know what's happening on the ground in order to apply stuff theoretically."
The experience also included a visit from the other NYUAD students in Sri Lanka, who traveled to Pattayanwatta as part of their Public Economics course with NYU New York Professor of Politics Rebecca Morton.
NYUAD freshman Jad Mahmoud found his interactions with the friendly locals from the village to be the most enriching part of the trip. "My trip to Sri Lanka wasn't about the country, but rather about the people," said Mahmoud. "We broke stereotypes and understood the needs of 20 families who lost their homes. We built them hope and they built our knowledge and earned our respect."
Many families in Pattayanwatta had lost their homes to either the recent Civil War in Sri Lanka, which lasted from 1983 to 2009, or the 2004 tsunami that affected certain parts of the country. By building a community center, the engineers hoped that they could provide certain necessary amenities to the people of the village. Despite the fact that heavy rain made working impossible for the last two days of the trip, the center was 90 percent completed by the time the engineers were packing their bags to return to Abu Dhabi.
On the last night of the trip, the students had the opportunity to explore Sri Lanka, a country famous for its lush mountains of green and devout spirituality. They toured the capital of Colombo and visited a Buddhist temple.
To organize a trip to a foreign country for 50 or so students is no small feat. Munya smiled as he recounted the large nature of both the group and its ambitious mission. "It was awesome. Nobody got lost, nobody got hurt, and we made a difference — it was a good trip."