College of Engineering News Room

USF Engineering and the Peace Corps – An Unprecedented Year

by Russell Nay

Two Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering students share their experiences serving in the Peace Corps and being evacuated from their posts near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spread of COVID-19 had drastic impacts on international travel throughout 2020. The U.S. Travel Association reported a near $500 billion loss in total travel spending last year.

Some travelers who took international flights in 2020 did so in order to avoid being stranded overseas, a position that more than 7,000 Peace Corps volunteers found themselves in during March. In a letter to all current Peace Corps volunteers, Peace Corps Acting Director Jody Olsen wrote that numerous service posts would be evacuated following the evacuation of Peace Corps volunteers from posts in China, Mongolia and several other countries.

"It is against this backdrop that I have made the difficult decision to temporarily suspend all Peace Corps operations globally and evacuate all of our Volunteers,” Olsen wrote. “As COVID-19 continues to spread and international travel becomes more and more challenging by the day, we are acting now to safeguard your well-being and prevent a situation where Volunteers are unable to leave their host countries.”

Out of more than 6,000 Peace Corps volunteers surveyed in a 2019 report by the organization, about 80% of serving volunteers were identified as college graduates. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Professor James Mihelcic said that there was once as many as 20 graduate civil and environmental engineering students serving in the Peace Corps simultaneously. In collaboration with the organization, the department’s Peace Corps program has helped students find a variety of postgraduate employment including positions with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, UNICEF and UNHCR, as well as the United Nations Refugee Agency.

“USF has provided opportunities for civil and environmental engineering graduate students for well over a decade now to combine service and work experience in the Peace Corps with their graduate education and research,” he said. “We provide this program for incoming and returned Peace Corps volunteers, typically performing duties of a water/sanitation engineer.”

Students who were recently part of the program include environmental engineering graduate student Faith Malay and environmental engineering graduate student Elizabeth Vicario.

Malay is centering her master's thesis around the use of American leafcutter ant nest material as a novel additive to cement stabilized earth and bricks that could provide families in small communities throughout Panama with a cheap way to fashion improved cookstoves that are more efficient than cooking over an open flame.

rio oeste house view

A latrine sits on a hillside near Malay’s house in Rio Oeste Abajo within the province of Bocas del Toro where she served during the last six months of her Peace Corps service in Panama. Picture courtesy of Faith Malay

She said she joined the Peace Corps because of the inequities she saw growing up and wanted to help the organization reach its water and sanitation health goals in a host country while learning whatever she could apply to her career from the community she’d live in for two years as part of her Peace Corps service.

"I grew up seeing a lot of inequity in communities that were full of intelligent, talented people who just weren’t given the resources they deserved or that the system could provide," she said. "I also look at international development as a form of mutual aid rather than charity — it’s ‘I gain something’ and ‘you gain something.’"

Malay originally applied to two Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) volunteer positions in Vanuatu and Sierra Leone and was accepted to both but had to take a year off from graduate school to care for an ill family member in 2017. During that year, she took Spanish classes at a local community college and applied for another WASH position in Panama, which she was accepted to and served in from 2018 to 2020 for a year and nine months.

While the WASH position has certain global standards and goals across Peace Corps posts and host countries, Malay said that many posts handle the position differently and that her work was wholly dictated by the community members she worked with in Loma Chata, Coclé and in Rio Oeste Abajo.

“I could have shown up there, and they could just have wanted to make soap for the whole two years and that would be an incredible, successful Peace Corps project,” she said. “As much as it can be, it tries as hard as it can be in Panama to be a bottom-up approach — what does your community want from you?”

While she did help run soapmaking classes, Malay also worked with community leaders to hold sexual education classes, create latrines for a number of households, and collaborate with volunteering engineers in nearby communities to create a local water consortium to discuss common water and sanitation-related issues they all faced, such as improving water access and legalization of water committees. In some of the most recent updates she’s received from community leaders, these consortium meetings still take place to this day.

“There was so much knowledge in those rural communities,” she said. “They know how to fix water systems, test for chlorine residuals, fix broken pipes — they know how to do everything, but it’s about centralizing this knowledge so it’s not held in small pockets where it can’t be shared.”

rio oeste waterline inspection

Justavio Baker, Water Committee President, conducts a waterline inspection with Malay in Rio Oeste Abajo to determine the factors for loss of water pressure. Picture courtesy of Faith Malay, with express permission from Baker

One of the biggest projects was completing an hours-long topographical survey with a water level and a formal engineering report after the group secured a $25,000 government contract to improve water access in the area.

Some of Malay’s work included smaller, non-WASH specific projects, like the construction of a community greenhouse, helping put together a women’s soccer team, running a weekly bake sale and taking bus trips into town with community members to sell their crafts.

While she planned to spend another year and a half at a university in Panama through a position she would have had at the end of her service, she and many other Peace Corps volunteers had to quickly transition back to life in the U.S. in March of 2020 amidst an international pandemic and hard-hit economy.

After multiple moves and months of job hunting, she accepted a project engineer position in August with the Indian Health Service, a federal agency that works with Native American communities that are indigenous nations and have sovereignty within the U.S.

Projects Malay works on are located in communities throughout the state of Washington and range from home construction to multimillion-dollar wastewater treatment plants and brand new water systems for larger communities.

“It’s a nice transition back because you spend years overseas trying to help improve communities’ resources, so it just makes sense to come back and do it at home,” she said.

loma chata choir

The choir members of Loma Chata, Coclé (L-R), Susana, Arelis, Fermina, Eneida, Yazael, and Junior practice Catholic hymns for the coming Semana Santa (Holy Week) celebrations. Picture courtesy of Faith Malay, with express permission from those named

Malay said she plans to return to Panama for a return visit in 2022 once community members are vaccinated against COVID-19 and also plans to one day earn a Professional Engineer license from the National Society of Professional Engineers to become a better design engineer and apply her expertise internationally.

Vicario said that after speaking with friends she served with, they decided that readjusting to life back home was harder than initially joining the Peace Corps. While a number of Peace Corps posts were evacuated in the past due to armed conflict or dire economic conditions, the mass evacuation of all posts is a first in the organization’s history.

“Evacuation itself was kind of traumatizing,” she said. “You just feel like you’re ripped away from this place you tried so hard to make a home for in for yourself, and then all of a sudden you have to leave, and you have to explain to people why. Then coming back to this isolated environment was really hard. The first 14 days you couldn’t even see your family. It’s been a long process of readjustment.”

sierra leone beginning meeting

Health volunteers organize a discussion about malaria treatment and prevention at the start of Elizabeth Vicario’s nine-month Peace Corps service in Sierra Leone. Picture courtesy of Elizabeth Vicario

Vicario is in the engineering for international development master’s program, and her thesis is centered around sanitation and sanitation marketing. One specific application is working with communities in Uganda to sell latrine upgrades and products.

Vicario said she joined the Peace Corps because it sounded like a good way to travel meaningfully and use her early 20's to do some good somewhere. While she looked at other volunteer abroad opportunities, most were only three to six months long, which she felt wasn’t enough time to make as meaningful an impact.

She also had existing knowledge about both the Peace Corps and her future post, as she completed an Engineers Without Borders project in Sierra Leone during her undergraduate program, and her mom had served in the Peace Corps in Ghana in the late 70’s.

The departure timing for the community health adviser position in Sierra Leone worked out conveniently as well, so Vicario applied, was accepted and began what would be a nine-month service with the Peace Corps post in Sierra Leone.

iye and elizabeth

Vicario (right) met Iye Sengeh at a Peace Corps training conference where each volunteer was matched with a member of the local community to work together on projects and translate ideas. Picture courtesy of Elizabeth Vicario

Like the WASH position, Vicario said the community health adviser position was largely unstructured and required her to work with community members to determine how she could best serve the community. Her work was based mostly out of a local clinic, where she did nutrition counseling for malnourished children and their families and menstrual hygiene and sexual health workshops, followed by a needs assessment to discover underlying issues in the community.

The assessment is a written report many health and education volunteers produce over their first months at their posts, created from community member interviews and various types of gathered data. Vicario found many cases of diarrheal disease in the community, as well as a lack of sanitation infrastructure and no public water sources whatsoever besides local streams. She said the latter was unusual for many communities around Sierra Leone, as most typically had at least one kind of improved water source.

These findings shaped the rest of her work in the community, which included workshops with local community health promoters to better train them on water and sanitation issues as well as a health class for middle and elementary school students on how to collect water from communal streams without contaminating them and other safe sanitation practices.

sierra leone school workshop

Sengeh and Vicario made three reusable menstrual pads and for each girl at menstrual hygiene and sexual health workshops they held for two local schools, as well as kits for each to make their own. This was Sengeh’s first teaching experience, and she’s now a volunteer sexual education teacher in the city of Bo in Sierra Leone. Picture courtesy of Elizabeth Vicario

“I was trying to figure out something that was feasible for me to help with that’s needed in the community that I can also finish in two years,” she said. “It was tricky and took a lot of communicating and a lot of little meetings as opposed to one big community meeting.”

After completing her master’s, Vicario said she’d ideally like to center her Ph.D. research around a long-term project with the community she served in Sierra Leone, as it’d be a nice way for her to finish her service there.

She said it may even be the start of a career on the technology side of choosing appropriate sanitation and water systems for developing communities around the globe.

“I’d like to work for a small nonprofit that does sanitation and water projects in developing communities with those communities, not for those communities,” she said. “Sometimes projects can fail just because the wrong sort of infrastructure was selected that falls apart because the community has no say in it.”