March 23, 2019 | 30° F

Rutgers students make friends, build bridges in Bolivia

Photo by Wikimedia |

Bridges to Prosperity pairs humanitarian efforts with engaging learning experiences for students. The organization builds bridges for communities in Bolivia — connecting residents with valuable resources that become inaccessible during heavy floods.

Instead of catching waves during summer vacation, students involved with Bridges to Prosperity are preparing to help small communities all over the globe, one bridge at a time.

Husam Najm, a Bridges to Prosperity advisor, said that for many global communities, bridges can provide a gateway to safer travel and improved livelihood. For one isolated community in Bolivia, floods and rainy seasons mean riskier travel across rivers. This prevents the community from accessing schools and their crops. 

Last summer, Bridges to Prosperity had one goal — to give people access to their community all year round. Along with helping improve the lives of local community members, Bridges to Prosperity offers engineering students a rare opportunity to apply what they have been taught.          

“The mission of Bridges to Prosperity is to offer our students the opportunity to apply engineering theory in a very real-life, practical way,” said Ilene Rosen, associate dean of the School of Engineering. 

In projects where Bridges to Prosperity has participated, members were able to get a hands-on education and obtain a humanitarian perspective on the purpose of their work.   

The organization also welcomes non-engineering students and includes them in annual projects. Carolina Acevedo, event coordinator for the summer 2017 project, said that she joined Bridges to Prosperity as a social work major and didn’t know a lot about engineering. 

“(The club) introduces members to the process of designing and calculating,” Acevedo said. 

Everything from engineering to travel expectations are thoroughly explained by members and leaders.

Rosen said that students are able to see their impact when local communities utilize and benefit from their hard work. By directly facing real-world problems and finding tangible solutions, students have described their Bridges to Prosperity experience as life-changing. 

With assistance from Duke University students, Bridges to Prosperity oversaw creation of a pedestrian bridge in Bolivia last summer, Najm said. 

The project took roughly 8 to 10 months, during that time students from both universities held video and conference calls with local organization, Engineers in Action (EIA). Najm said both parties decided on a community based on need, survey data and photos taken by locals. 

After they choose a site, a team comprised of eight University undergraduate students, three graduate students, two Duke University students and a Bridge Corps member examined the logistics, Najm said. 

“They worked on the design of the bridge, such as the bridge length, height, number of tiers, cable size and cable anchors,” Najm said.  

Due to the time restrictions, most of the team was only able to travel during July and August and much of the construction had to be completed during that time, Najm said. 

Made of local materials, “The Palmar Pampa” bridge was up and running by the end of August.  

“(Students learn) what it takes to plan, manage, fund raise, design and build a real bridge under difficult conditions,” Najm said.  

A limited access to showers, lack of internet access, mosquito bites and travel difficulties were some of what the group endured, she said.  

Along with the “Palmar Pampa” bridge, Bridges to Prosperity has worked with the University of Colorado on planning and construction of the “Churro Alto” bridge in 2016.

The organization is in the process of selecting a site to build a third bridge on this summer — the team is currently fundraising for bridge expenses and are looking for sponsors and donors to help execute the project, said Acevedo. 

Haya Abdel-Jabbar

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