When Tom Hammett, professor of sustainable biomaterials in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment, was approached by three students about possible service opportunities in Nepal, he had no idea that their commitment to the university's motto Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) would lead to a multiyear international partnership.
The College of Engineering students — Abigail Smith, of Cleveland, Ohio, a senior majoring in industrial and systems engineering; Donald Savacool, of Flemington, New Jersey, a senior majoring in chemical engineering; and Thomas “Sam” Belvin, of Glen Allen, Virginia, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering — were seeking service opportunities in Nepal after completing a service project in Haiti that inspired them to continue working abroad.
Together they formed Service Without Borders, a grassroots Virginia Tech student group whose mission is to share the spirit of Ut Prosim by partnering with communities locally and globally.
As the students sought advice regarding potential projects in Nepal, Hammett, who first worked in Nepal as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1974, was the natural choice.
“In the Peace Corps, I helped farmers grow more nutritious food and create income sources for their families based on their local forested environments,” Hammett said. “I’ve been going back to Nepal for the last 25 years to work with universities there and to teach Virginia Tech classes.”
To determine the best way to help the people of Nepal, Service Without Borders began a partnership with the Tshampa Foundation, a Blacksburg-based nonprofit focused on social, educational, and cultural services for the culturally Tibetan people of the mountainous areas of Nepal.
Aided by the foundation, Hammett acted as a liaison between the Service Without Borders students and leaders of the village of Dhumba in northern Nepal.
“This was a village I’d worked in before, so I had seen firsthand what their village was like and already knew some of the community leaders there,” he said.
The group originally planned to visit Nepal shortly after the April 2015 earthquake to survey damage and assess needs in Dhumba. However, concerned about the lack of infrastructure, Hammett recommended that they postpone the trip several months. He helped set up the logistics for the trip even though he could not participate.
Students Without Borders’ two other faculty advisors — Professor Brian Benham and Professor Emeritus Theo Dillaha of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering — accompanied three students to Dhumba in January 2016 on a fact-finding mission to determine the needs of the community and formulate a plan for future trips.
The group had considered rebuilding a village monastery, community center, and school, but after surveying the local situation and meeting with local residents, the group and community leaders decided instead to focus on rebuilding damaged irrigation ditches and water collection structures.
The village is located in a region where rain is scarce, so residents must rely on water from rivers diverted into irrigation systems to support both cash-crop and subsistence farming.
Hammett and Dillaha returned to Dhumba in June 2016 with six students, who worked with villagers to complete two kilometers of an irrigation system. The system delivers water to fields and farms throughout the village.
The students included:
- Douglas Belcik, of Scotch Plains, New Jersey, a junior majoring in civil engineering in the College of Engineering
- Thomas “Sam” Belvin, of Glen Allen, Virginia, a senior majoring in mechanical engineering
- Adi Fine of Rockville, Maryland, a senior majoring in civil engineering
- Yousef Hasanzadah, of Vienna, Virginia, a senior in biological sciences in the College of Science
- Viktor Hoogstoel, of Summit, New Jersey, who completed his degree in mechanical engineering in May
- Kaitlyn White, of Poquoson, Virginia, a senior majoring in geography in the College of Natural Resources and Environment
White recalled working alongside the villagers as they dug into the riverbed to put in the pipes.
“They were some of the most-hardworking, kindest people I’ve ever met,” she said.
Service Without Borders raised $75,000 to pay for travel and building materials for the project, with much of the funding coming from a matching grant of $30,000 from Virginia Tech’s Outreach and International Affairs.
According to Hammett, the students’ dedication to raising funds was only the tip of the iceberg.
“Day in and day out, these students were walking an hour and 15 minutes uphill to get to the worksite, carrying cement and sand, building forms, and mixing and hauling concrete, all the while working alongside the local villagers,” he said. “The enthusiasm and the high level of engagement across two cultures was very heartening and inspiring.”
The group has finished repairing half of the irrigation ditch and has plans to return to Nepal in early 2017 after the village raises more money to complete the project.
The students, who have made a five-year commitment to the village, and community members also have plans to construct a community center and rebuild part of the local school that was damaged by the earthquake.
“I’ve taken graduate students and faculty to Nepal in the past,” Hammett said, “but I’ve never had such great response from students about service and really wanting to help do the heavy lifting.”
In addition to their work in Nepal and an upcoming project in Tanzania, Service Without Borders is dedicated to working locally.
So far, the group has built a bike shelter near campus and worked on a greenway in Roanoke.
“We are interdisciplinary and really want to have projects that extend through all areas of the university,” said Belvin, who participated in both trips.