Empowering public service across the globe

Students improve water quality in South Africa with JPC grant


Grant recipients said exposure to unique cultures made their time abroad challenging and inspiring. 

More than 50 undergraduate students were recently awarded the Jefferson Public Citizens grant, which provides funds for students to undertake a public service project during the 2015 to 2016 school year. Projects range from local initiatives in Charlottesville to service in Uganda, Tanzania, India, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Guatemala and South Africa.

Five undergraduate students will work with Civil and Environmental Engineering Prof. James A. Smith on a long-term project designed to address water quality in developing countries. The students will build a ceramic water filter factory in Hammanskraal, South Africa. Smith, who has been advising JPC teams for several years, has already built one factory in the Limpopo Province of South Africa.

“JPC really likes to fund projects that are [continuous] over multiple years, and I think that makes total sense because it means the projects aren’t just [going] in and [working] with a community for a short period of time,” second-year College student and JPC team member Alice Burgess said. “I think it means that you can build a relationship with a community and U.Va. over time.”

In these regions of South Africa, the water only runs two or three days a week for a few hours at a time, Smith said. People face the decision of either going without water for long periods of time or filling up containers with water which is likely to get contaminated. The filters implemented by JPC grant recipients treat water through physical filtration and chemical disinfection.

For Smith, building the first water filter factory was a three part process. The first year, team members assessed the needs of the community and their ability to implement the project. The second year, they built the structure, and the third year, they evaluated their work. This summer, the recent grant recipients will begin this process for a new factory.

The project’s long-term goal is to make factories entirely local and sustainable.

“The unemployment rate is so high, so we feel like we are able to create jobs and local people are able to sell filters so the money stays in the community,” Smith said. “Ideally, we are not [at this] point yet, but we would like to get these factories to be completely sustainable so that the revenue they generate from the sale of the filters is able to pay people working there and at the same time they improve water quality and health in the regional community.”

While JPC recently made grant requests lower in order to spread funds across more projects, Smith’s team is able to continue their long-term work abroad by supplementing costs with grants from the Center for Global Health. Each student has traveling expenses covered, and in the past, students have received stipends as well.

Professor Smith and the JPC team also work with University of Venda to evaluate local community needs and implement projects. Two of the partners — Boas and Certinah — visited the University this year and met with the JPC team in preparation for this summer.

“We are meeting with these incredibly lovely, open people who are just such wonderful people to work with,” Burgess said. “I think that our project won’t only be successful, but we will [also] get great friends and mentors out of it.”

All of the team members emphasized the importance of being culturally competent when working on a project of this scale.

“When you go into a culture it is not just like, ‘Oh we are working with water, we need to know about water,’” Burgess said. “It is also, ‘We have to know about why their water situation is what it is. We have to know about the economical [and] historical forces in play [as well as] cultural norms.’”

For team members, having the opportunity to encounter radical cultural differences makes the experience of working abroad both challenging and rewarding.

“Any time you walk up to a household [in certain countries], if the family is sitting out front, they all stand up, even the grandmother, and they give you [their] chair and … they want to welcome you,” third-year Engineering student Chloe Rento said. “They are all so nice and it is just such a different culture from what we see here. They were always willing to talk to you and see how you were doing, whereas people here always kind of have their heads down and keep walking.”

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