Engineers Without Borders is a Registered Student Organization at the University of Illinois that works to build a better world by empowering communities in Illinois and around the globe. They create sustainable engineering projects like bridges, wastewater, and electrical systems that improve the quality of life for the people in those areas. I sat down with EWB outreach chair and U of I freshman Ria Bawiskar to learn more about the upcoming Stride for Sustainability 5K race hosted by EWB as well as Bawiskar’s work and the work she does within the organization.
Bawiskar has one of those personalities that is at once warm, welcoming, and confident. She is only a freshman, but the answers she provided throughout our interview were thoughtful and her composure is that of someone twice her age. We discussed perceptions of engineers, her experience living on campus in Champaign-Urbana, and why she is working with EWB to make a difference in Illinois and the wider world.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Smile Politely: Can you tell me a little bit about yourself?
Ria Bawiskar: My name is Ria and I am a freshman undergraduate student at the University of Illinois. I’m a computer science plus economics major and I joined this organization because it promised to apply engineering principles and impact people all over the world.
SP: I saw you love trying new foods, where is your favorite place to eat in Champaign-Urbana?
Bawiskar: It’s only been a semester but I really like to try places on campus and off. I think one of the coolest places off campus is the Literary Cafe. It has some really good food and of course the books are great.
SP: What drew you to Engineers Without Borders?
Bawiskar: I went to their meeting on a whim actually and in it, they had two pictures of houses in Guatemala. One looked like it was made out of wood and one was made out of concrete. They asked everybody in the audience which house was more sturdy. And everyone thought it was the one made of concrete, but in fact it was the wooden one. I learned so much in that first meeting. And it illustrated to me, that they made time and effort to learn about the cultures and communities they worked with. I had seen several organizations that wanted to help apply engineering to communities, but none like this one.
SP: So was this one a little more hands on?
Bawiskar: Hands on and just culturally aware which I think is a big, big issue in engineering in general and to see them apply it like this, all over the world, it was really great to see.
SP: What is your role and why did you decide to get more involved in the organization?
Bawiskar: Up to this point I had been working for the Guatemala team which was mostly meetings, but I could tell that the project leads and the exec board really cared about what was going on. So I said to myself, “what would be the problem if I tried to join them, if I really tried to make a difference here”? So I ran for the outreach chair. A little bit about my role, I work on maintaining alumni relationships with students that have graduated from the organization and are now in the workforce. I also work with organizations that we are affiliated with to try to get our name out and about in the Chambana community.
SP: What is something people don’t know about engineering students?
Bawiskar: I think engineering students can come off as isolated and only interested in the engineering parts of their work. But the engineers I work with on the exec team range from civil to computer engineering students and they all really really care about innovation and creativity. I don’t think that comes out much at first, but when they apply themselves for a good cause it really shows.
SP: The 5K that EWB is hosting supports 3 main projects- which one are you most excited about?
Bawiskar: Right now I am still working on the Guatemala project. We started implementation remotely in Guatemala this semester. There is a chance we might travel to see them, but the engineers there send amazing videos of the progress. The worksite looks really fun, in the background of the videos there is always music and laughter, and people from the community that are helping. This project is building a new bathroom system for a school that was over capacity and couldn’t sustain what they had, so for a semester last year we worked on finalizing designs and getting the budget through and now it’s close to completion.
SP: So you work with communities from the ground up to build and create these projects?
Bawiskar: Yes, a lot of the projects we do, including the one in Illinois. We always try to have one in Illinois to give people the opportunity to travel more often. But all of the projects we focus on, even though they vary across the engineering spectrum, really work on creating a sustainable project that a community can maintain themselves. Often it’s been ruined by a natural disaster, worn away over time, or is just not sustainable for people anymore.
SP: What is the best way for people to support this race?
Bawiskar: The primary way we encourage people in the community is to join. The race is on Earth Day and we choose this day to represent the sustainability part of our organization. So come out, get a ticket, run or walk around the quad, it will be a good day. You can meet us and learn a little bit about our organization. We love making connections whether it be with incoming students or industry professionals and we would love to teach you about our organization.
SP: What is your favorite thing about EWB so far?
Bawiskar: I think the coolest thing about this organization is that people really care. During our Engineering Open House last week we had an exhibition, so I was working late at night in our office and when I came in there were several other exec members there waiting to help me. Everybody is so collaborative and wants to help our projects succeed.
SP: What is something you liked about CU that you weren’t expecting?
Bawiskar: The diversity of people on and off campus was surprising. When I go off campus everyone is really excited and supportive to have the students here. When I first came [to Champaign] I’m from the suburbs of Chicago, I thought I would be stuck in the cornfields. But when I’m out on the quad and I see families, people that have grown up around here or have had families go here, it just seems like everyone really supports the University.
SP: What is something frustrating about CU?
Bawiskar: In the city there are things open all the time and I’m definitely a night owl so it’s hard to find places here that are open late. But other than that, I really like the community here.
You can learn more about Engineers without Borders and their upcoming 5K race.