11.09.2015

Humanitarian engineering – providing rich volunteering experiences and benefit for communities in ne

Jen Johnstone is a passionate advocate for international development and humanitarian engineering work. For the last five years, she's been actively involved with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) – a non-profit organisation that engages with communities to meet their self-identified needs through technical assistance and engineering expertise.

In 2013, Jen joined Beca's Water team in Christchurch as a civil engineer. A career in civil engineering was an important decision for Jen – she wanted a future where she could apply her expertise to community initiatives. In her spare time, she heads up the 'Working With Communities' team at EWB, which works to alleviate poverty through humanitarian engineering.

We interviewed Jen to find out about humanitarian engineering, and how it's provided her with rich volunteering experiences and direct benefit for communities in need.

B: How can engineering expertise help communities in need?

JJ: Engineering firms have a massive opportunity to support humanitarian initiatives. Through pro-bono work, they can provide considerable value to communities in need who wouldn't otherwise have access to those skills. They can also play a key part in helping them meet many basic (and arguably the most critical) needs like water, sanitation, shelter and energy.

B: What's the most memorable EWB project you've been involved in?

JJ: I was involved with the Wawan Water Supply Project, Vanuatu working with a local Council of women based in Ambrym. I visited the island twice, spending about four months living and working with the Council, to find a sustainable solution for their lack of water during the dry season.

The remoteness of the village and total immersion into a different culture made the experience particularly memorable. There was no access to any of the mod-cons I'm used to, like running water or a generous electricity supply. While I was there, I was adopted into a local family. They gave me a local name (Akum) and completely welcomed me into their society. For a community that lacks the "essentials" we can't live without, they were incredibly generous with what they had, and I was humbled by the experience.

B: How has working with EWB helped with your personal and professional development?

JJ: It's significantly improved my leadership and management skills, and helped me become a more well-rounded and open-minded person. My involvement with EWB also helped me land a job at Beca – I mentioned that I was job-hunting to a fellow EWB volunteer, and he helped me get an interview with my current section manager.

B: How can others get involved with EWB?

JJ: The best way to get involved is to join up with your local chapter – sign up to the committee and attend EWB events so that you meet our volunteers and learn more about EWB and international development.

When EWB recruits volunteers, particularly overseas placement volunteers, we look for people who have already been engaged with us and developed an understanding of international development. If you're thinking about volunteering overseas, I'd highly suggest getting involved with EWB.

Want to know more?

Visit the Engineers Without Borders website for more information about the work they do, and how you can be involved. Beca is a key corporate partner of Engineers Without Borders New Zealand. Through our partnership and active volunteers providing pro-bono engineering assistance, we aim to work together to help transform and empower communities in need.

Watch this video to find out more about Jen's experience on the Wawan Water Supply project.