PUC Guatemala group
These UT students, including aerospace engineering majors Matthew Li (back row, middle) and Felix Zhang (front, right) worked to help improve clean water access to the village of Aldea Santa Cruz in Guatemala this summer. They are shown here atop volcano in Antigua.

In a typical Guatemalan village, a Pila serves as an all-purpose water station. Community members, usually women, go there to wash clothes, clean dishes and chat. Pilas are an important component to Guatemalan culture for both sanitary and communal reasons.

Aldea Santa Cruz’s Pilas had been broken until recently, with leaky faucets and improper drainage. The entire community, made up of about 1,000 people, used only a small, 2-inch tube for all of their water needs. This summer, eight students, including two aerospace engineering sophomores, went to Guatemala to build Aldea Santa Cruz a new Pila as part of the International Office’s Projects with Underserved Communities (PUC) program.

“As engineers, our responsibility is for the betterment of humanity through the application of scientific and technical knowledge,” said Felix Zhang, one of the aerospace engineering students and technical/risk & safety manager. “With PUC, this became an outlet for me to use the education and opportunities that I've been blessed with to make a positive impact in the lives of others.”

Felix Zhang
Felix Zhang "hooks 'em" with some children from the village of Aldea Santa Cruz.

PUC is a collaborative summer program between the Cockrell School of Engineering and the School of Social Work. Students from different departments come together to build a project for a third-world community. In the past, these projects have included constructing a generator in Ghana and expanding a school in Tanzania.

“I think engineering in the real-world is all about your skillset, ability to work in a professional environment and contribution to new/ongoing projects,” said Matthew Li, the other aerospace engineering sophomore and finance communication manager. “These are all things that PUC has allowed me to develop.”

To prepare for this experience, students took courses over the previous year to learn about project management. During winter break, a few students also traveled to Aldea Santa Cruz for the first time to learn about the water needs and concerns from the villagers themselves. While there, they saw for themselves how a lack of clean water was causing illnesses in the village.

In May, the team returned to Guatemala for two and a half weeks to build the Pila. For eight hours a day, six days a week, they mixed cement and concrete, laid cinder blocks, applied mortar and put in pipes. The students also sometimes played with the village children. They planned two community activities for the children toward the end of their time there, one on hand-washing and another on dental hygiene.

Aldea Santa Cruz Pila

Zhang and Li felt that the experience allowed them to gain unique, hand-on skills from what they have been learning in their classes. This included learning how to fundraise, participate and communicate as part of a team and adjust to unexpected complications.

“In the end, the project ended up successful, and it was a huge blessing to be able to work with a community I'd had never met otherwise,” Li said. “It was also really cool seeing a lot of the community come together to not only aid us but also take ownership of the project. That's really important, I think, and it meant that the Pila was as much the community's project, if not more than, as our project.”

Learn more about the PUC team’s experience in their online blog.