Undergraduate student Emily Ferrando traveled to Sabana Grande, Nicaragua, over the summer to intern with an organization called Grupo Fenix. Named for the phoenix, the bird that is reborn from ashes, the nonprofit builds solar power facilities to improve life for Nicaraguans. Ferrando says the trip reaffirmed her desire to work in environmental remediation after graduation.
This is part of an ongoing series of essays from across the globe written by CEE students who have traveled abroad with the support of the Joe S. Mundy Global Learning Endowment.
Emily Ferrando and the other Grupo Fenix interns making a solar panel in Sabana Grande, Nicaragua. Ferrando spent summer 2015 working with the nonprofit. Her trip was supported by the Mundy Global Learning Endowment, a fund created to support international learning experiences for civil and environmental engineering students. (Photo: Emily Ferrando)
I learned so much this summer through amazing experiences that I would never have had the chance to be a part of without the Mundy Fund.
I was living with a host family, and that in itself taught me so much. My house had no running water and got most of its energy from a solar panel attached to the roof. Throughout my time there, I helped my family bring water to the house from the well that was about a 10-minute walk from our house, washed my laundry in a nearby stream, and took bucket baths.
With 12 people in the family, the women spent most of their time washing clothes, cooking, cleaning the house, and bringing water from the well. Despite this, and their lack of amenities, the people in the community were all very warm and welcoming and were always happy to spend time catching up with one another and lending a hand to anyone who needed help in the community.
I honestly think that these people, living in a rural village with very little, were happier overall than any community here in the United States. While living in Sabana Grande, I really learned how to look at the things I do have and find ways to make do with them instead of worrying about all of the things that I don’t have.
The kindness and hopefulness that I encountered in my time in Nicaragua has really influenced me to see the best in people and helped me to be more positive when facing challenges.
The inside of the solar distiller Emily Ferrando redesigned during her summer 2015 internship with Grupo Fenix in Nicaragua. (Photo: Emily Ferrando)
One of my specific projects [with Grupo Fenix] was to redesign a solar powered water distiller. The distilled water that comes from it is used for the solar panels’ batteries and to distill enough water so that the excess could be sold to local hardware stores to bring in more income to the solar center.
The distiller was a black box lined with black tile to attract heat with a glass rectangular pyramid lid and a gutter system on the sides of the box. The box gets very hot and the water sitting on the tiles evaporates to the glass before it runs down into the gutters and flows out of the distiller as distilled water. The old distiller was not water tight, the gutters melted and deformed in the heat, and the lid was not removable, so the expensive glass had to be broken to fix any internal problems with the distiller.
During my time there, I was able to make the distiller watertight, find a plastic that would function as a gutter even in extreme temperatures, and create a removable glass lid so that it could be saved even if there was a problem inside the distiller. Before I left, the distiller was functioning well and distilling water at a much faster rate.
Emily Ferrando in Nicaragua's Somoto Canyon during her summer internship. Ferrando spent her weekends exploring Nicaraguan culture and traveling throughout the country to places like this canyon. (Photo: Emily Ferrando)
Aside from working, I was able to travel during the weekends and see different parts of Nicaragua. I was able to swim in the longest river in Central America, el Río Coco, while exploring the Somoto Canyon. Another weekend, I got to swim in the Pacific Ocean for the first time and hike to the top of a volcano before I sledded down the side of it.
When I stayed home for the weekend, I spent time helping my host sister cook and learned how to make different Nicaraguan dishes. I was even able to spend time with a painter who taught me indigenous painting techniques. I painted a jicaro shell, which is the shell of a fruit that was commonly used for bowls and cups. These two experiences were my favorites, as I was able to learn firsthand about Nicaraguan culture and participate in it.
I have learned an immense amount in my time in Nicaragua. My Spanish has improved vastly and I gained a great deal of knowledge regarding working in developing communities and their dependence on the environment. Because I was staying in an agricultural community, their lives depend on the weather. They need rain for their crops or the sun to cook in a solar oven.
Although many of the people there do not have as much education as people here, many of them are very aware of global warming. Speaking with members of the community about this has shown me how affected people living in a developing nation are by climate change.
Prior to my trip, I was thinking of working in environmental remediation or working in other ways to help protect the environment. Seeing how much climate change can affect people across the globe reaffirmed this goal and made me want to work toward creating a more environmentally friendly future, because actions of first world countries should not be creating a more difficult life for those living in developing nations.