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Alumni and Friends Making an Impact

Building More Than Buildings

In every part of the world, there is a need for engineers. But for some University of Dayton engineering graduates, what they thought they’d use their degrees to build changed thanks to the ETHOS Center.

Through the program, these students learned that in some communities, engineers are not needed to build bridges or skyscrapers. They are needed to design and build things as life-changing as community gardens and poignant memorials.

One of those students was William Strosnider ’03. He had been part of ETHOS immersion projects back when the program was in its infancy and went on to become director of the Baruch Marine Field Laboratory, part of the University of South Carolina, located in Georgetown County. Once home to sprawling rice plantations, many of the county’s landmarks became hard to find after the Civil War when plantations closed and wilderness began to reclaim the area. By 2010, about 20% of the county’s 60,000 residents were living below the poverty line and activists like Zenobia Harper were working on plans to preserve history and improve the quality of life for those living there.

After founding the Gullah Society, Harper planted a community garden to grow fresh fruit and vegetables for community members — but the ground flooded and little would grow. She had never worked with UD’s ETHOS Center before, but after speaking with Strosnider, she was willing to give it a chance.

In spring 2021, Harper and the society hosted their first two ETHOS students, Ancy Johnson and Ashley Kush ’21. Johnson had already earned an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering and will graduate from UD in December 2021 with her master’s. Like other ETHOS students before her, she said she expected to reach her destination and show people how to get their projects off the ground. She didn’t expect to learn from the community as well.

But Harper had other plans. She knew from the beginning that she wanted to make sure students got as much out of the project as they put into it.

“No matter what they are learning or how far their skills take them, how you interact with the community is how well you understand that community and how well you can meet them where they are,” said Harper.

Johnson and Kush were tasked with designing and building raised beds to move the plants above the floodwater. It may sound different from the aircraft engineering skills Johnson had been focused on but that didn’t matter. ETHOS immersion projects give students the opportunity to put skills they learned in the classroom to work in the field. They also help students visualize careers that allow them to approach engineering in a broader sociotechnical context.

The students had to develop a plan to build the raised beds using supplies that could be gathered for little to no cost, get it approved by their clients (Harper and the society), create a timeline for completing the project and oversee volunteers doing the work.

“All of our UD ETHOS students learn how to apply what they have learned differently from how they thought they might apply it when they were learning it,” said Strosnider. “Learning this creatively is invaluable.”

The ETHOS students also lent their engineering skills to a second community project. For decades, the Myrtle Grove Cemetery had been the final resting place for enslaved people who died while working at area plantations. The property was eventually purchased and the community’s access was cut off. The students helped with efforts to build pathways and memorials to allow for people to learn about this historically Black cemetery and those buried within it. They also spent time with a local group of middle school students, teaching them math skills through a game called Mancala.

Harper assigned “homework” to the UD students in their free time. She sent them to museums, landmarks and even her own mother’s home to help them understand the culture of the community.

“At the grassroots level in a community, when you can see it and understand people, then this becomes where the work has to begin if we are going to move [that community] from point A to point B,” said Harper.

By summer, two more UD students had arrived to work on the next phases of the projects. In Harper’s garden, seniors JaiViana Harris and Jordan Wilson were tasked with building an irrigation system. Harris said that while her studies prepared her well, the project was different from how she’d pictured using her mechanical engineering technology degree. But much like Strosnider’s ETHOS experience, her time in South Carolina opened her eyes to the potential for a different career path.

“ETHOS changed my perspective and made me realize that I can do engineering out of the industry and in my community,” said Harris. “I feel like I can do more. And if I don’t go into the [mechanical engineering] industry I’ll work for a nonprofit as an engineer.”

Even with all the work they did, Johnson and Harris both got more out of their immersion experiences than they put in. They agree that if given the chance to do it again, they would if they could afford it. That’s why the program needs support from donors. Each immersion costs between $4,000 and $7,000. For now, much of these costs are covered through small endowments made to the School of Engineering or through donations specifically earmarked for ETHOS during One Day, One Dayton, UD’s annual giving day. Students get a small stipend for room and expenses, but they don’t get paid — and students who join international immersions often must pay a fee to participate.

In the end, Johnson believes the price tag is worth it.

“After this program, I made myself an oath that if I get the opportunity to work with community projects, I am ready to go help them. I am not going to miss the chance that I get to help others or humanity with my gifts.”

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