UI students building bridges, changing lives around the world

By Sara Agnew for the Iowa City Press-Citizen

Three students on unfinished brige
The success of their bridge building projects have inspired many students to return each summer

Those who think young people today are only interested in tweeting, texting and snap chatting haven’t met Katie Langenfeld, Ian Nessler and Louie Hardin.

This trio of engineering students at the University of Iowa is giving up another summer next year to return to Nicaragua where they will design and build another pedestrian bridge in a remote community. These young people — all of whom grew up in Iowa City — will live on beans, rice and cabbage and sleep under mosquito nets in dirt-floored huts.

If they’re lucky, they won’t return home with a parasite that last year rendered Nessler and Hardin about 20 pounds lighter. Besides these ghastly conditions, the area is so remote that cellphones are unreliable, at best.

So why go back?

“Seeing how grateful the people were and knowing how much a bridge that we built would change their lives,” said Langenfeld, 20, a sophomore majoring in environmental engineering. “That’s what made it worth it and why I want to go back.”

The students are members of Continental Crossings, an organization that was formed in 2006 by a group of UI civil engineering students who wanted to combine academics with a desire to assist communities in developing countries. With the help of a nonprofit organization called Bridges to Prosperity (B2P), the student group designs and builds pedestrian bridges, the first of which was constructed in 2007 in Peru. UI was the first of several universities to partner with Bridges to Prosperity.

Three students on bridge
Students pose on a completed bridge project

Since then, teams of UI students have completed four pedestrian bridges, one in Zambia in 2010 and three in Nicaragua in 2011, 2012 and 2013. The bridges usually are located in remote areas where most transportation is by foot. When the rivers swell, people are cut off from work, school, health care and markets in which to trade their goods. The isolation often is devastating.

This summer, a team of seven UI students will return to Nicaragua for eight weeks and build a 148-foot long bridge in Cinta Verde. The trip will be Hardin’s third with Continental Crossings and the second for Langenfeld and Nessler.

As is always the case, the students will be responsible for on-site surveying, development of technical drawings, material selection and the final construction plans. Nessler and Hardin will travel to the site in January to make sure measurements they took last summer still are accurate and to get acquainted with the community.

Nessler said as a university chapter of Bridges to Prosperity, the group receives help from technical advisers who are professional engineers and review the students’ designs.

“The technical adviser will critique our bridge design until it is optimal for the situation,” he said. “They also have in-country representatives to help us if we need it.”

After that, the students are on their own to find new bridge sites, talk with communities, secure materials and find meals, housing and transportation.

“It is always good to get the community used to us and to trust us,” Nessler said. “We need them to buy into the project because we will need their help.”

Phil Jordan, a business liaison with the UI Tippie College of Business/John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center, used to work at the UI engineering department and observed the development of the Continental Crossing program. He said the program provides an experience impossible to simulate in class and a context for students’ engineering education.

Three students building a brige
UI students put their engineering knowledge to use as they survey the area

“The program is an amazing experience for the students, combining experiential education and service learning to truly make a difference in the lives of the local population,” he said. “The academic value of applying their engineering skills to a real-world problem, filled with the ‘noise and messiness’ of working with people, politics and cultures, rather than solving a problem in a textbook, is immense.”

Forging relationships with the locals is what Hardin has treasured most about his trips to Nicaragua.

“It is a very eye-opening experience,” Hardin said. “You see people surviving in conditions you can’t imagine.”

Nessler also was surprised by the conditions. “I had never seen anything like it, that level of poverty, he said. “People live in wood shacks with dirt floors. It’s hard to comprehend.”

Yet, the students noticed that despite their living conditions, the local people did not focus on what they did not have. They focused on what they had — relationships with each other. That was evident in the evenings when, after work, the students were invited to sit with community members, eat and share stories.

The simplicity of life made a deep impression on the students.

Before holding an opening ceremony for the new bridge last year, leaders of the Nicaraguan community invited the students to hear stories about what life was like before their new connection to the outside world. Students learned firsthand that without the bridge, sick villagers couldn’t receive health care, farmers couldn’t sell their goods and children couldn’t complete their education.

“It was incredible,” Nessler said.

Before leaving Nicaragua last summer, Langenfeld, Nessler and Hardin gave away their clothes and shoes to members of the community. After all, they were returning home with something immeasurable from those they served. It seemed only fitting to leave with the clothes on their backs.