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Building Bridges and Communities

By Carrie Gabla, Office of Advancement

First-year Waterloo student Sion Chung is one of five civil engineering students who recently returned from building a bridge in Totolima, Bolivia. 

“It’s amazing. It looks like a place where dinosaurs will appear from behind the mountains,” says Chung.

The team is part of the University of Waterloo chapter of Bridges to Prosperity, an organization which works with communities to build footbridges over ravines and rivers so local residents can access essential services. To date, Bridges to Prosperity has built over 130 bridges in 18 countries.

The project in Totolima represents the Waterloo chapter’s first bridge. The terrain there is rugged, and in the rainy season rivers and ravines flood, cutting villagers off from school, medical care, food and work. “We want to help raise the standard of living here and around the world,” says Grace Lee, VP Media & Marketing Relations for the University chapter. “We hope our efforts, combined with many others engaged in international humanitarian causes, will make a real difference.”

The University of Waterloo Bridges to Prosperity team was founded in 2013 and is the very first chapter in Canada. The other four members of the Bolivian travel team are Dilan Badshah, Relja Lukić, Arthur Li and Marianne Baucas.

Under the expert guidance of faculty advisor Dr. Scott Walbridge and an industry mentor, the team worked with the Totolima community to plan, design and build the bridge. They also taught the local residents how to maintain the bridge. An addition to valuable hands-on engineering experience, the team honed skills in collaboration, leadership, problem-solving and communication. They were thrilled to experience the local culture and to have picked up a bit of Spanish too.

BridgesThe Waterloo chapter was responsible for raising all costs associated with the project, which totaled around $33,000. Financial support came from outside and inside the campus community including the Engineer of the Future Trust, an award which was established last year when Terry Cunningham (BASc ’83) issued a challenge to engineering alumni.

With the new footbridge in place, Totolima’s 600 residents can now safely cross the river year round. “On the day we ‘handed over’ the bridge to the community, it was like a feeling of triumph! The bridge looked so majestic! Once the ceremony was over, I was really sad to say goodbye to these people, knowing I may never see them again,” recalls Arthur Li.

Planning and fundraising for the chapter’s next project is already underway. 

This is just one of the initiatives we’re showcasing in celebration of National Philanthropy Day, which takes place on November 15. Check out Storify to see what else is happening.