Student Feature – Sarah Welsh-Huggins

Sarah Welsh-HugginsSarah Welsh-Huggins

PhD Civil Engineering, Civil Systems

EDC Certificate Completion: Fall 2014

Undergraduate:Lafayette College, B.S. Civil Engineering, A.B. International Studies (dual degree)

What are your hobbies outside of academic life?

Like most Coloradans, I spend much of my downtime outdoors: I enjoy running and yoga, and like to hike and camp throughout the summer. And after living in Boulder for three years, I’m looking forward to having my first ski pass this winter! I also try to squeeze in time in the evenings to read for fun (currently finishing “The Life of Pi”) and I love to bake., especially pies and muffins! Finally, I have a serious travel-bug and enjoy getting the chance to journey around the world to see friends and family and find new adventures, whenever I can.

How did you become interested in global development?

When I was in high school I first learned about Engineers Without Borders and the organization Build Change. I knew that I was interested in engineering, but I also have a yen for social science, and being able to bring a humanitarian focus to engineering seemed like a way to pursue an engineering degree while contributing directly to people’s every day lives.

Why did you join the EDC program?

I joined EWB in college, but although other extracurricular activities kept me from making it my full-time interest, I knew that global development was the path I ultimately wanted to follow. When I was looking for a graduate school program, there were three things that drew me to CU Boulder: my adviser, the Civil Systems program, and EDC. By making the choice to add a specific development-focus to my graduate studies, I hoped that this would nurture my understanding of the social, economic, and historical contexts for the work I hope to do after graduating. My dissertation research does not explicitly focus on global development, and joining the EDC program offered me a chance to simultaneously build my technical skill set and study how to apply these skills with developing communities.

What has been the most valuable thing you’ve learned from the EDC program?

We may develop the most innovative solutions (a new water filtration system, cleaner cookstoves, a more cost-effective bridge) to a problem, but in order for these ideas to be successful, we must see the communities we seek to serve as partners and we must truly comprehend the context surrounding each project we undertake. I recognize that I am privileged: I am a white, middle-class, well-educated American, and I must respect each culture in which I work and with whom I work, because I do not, nor will I ever, have all of the answers and it is not my job to tell a community what they “need” or don’t need. As an engineer, my role is to act as a guide and collaborator. It is only with open communication, respect, and thoughtful engagement that we can work toward technical and social “progress,” whatever that may look like for each community.

Where did you complete your practicum?

In June of 2014, I traveled with GeoHazards International in northeast India (the city of Aizawl in Mizoram) to conduct field evaluations of existing and new reinforced-concrete buildings. Lack of land and a rapidly growing urban population forces the community to build on steep hillside slopes, in a region that is already prone to frequent landslides and annual monsoons. After my conducting interviews with local engineers and masons and investigating the current building conditions, I am working with GHI to build computational models of typical buildings in Aizawl to study their vulnerability to potential earthquake damage.

What do you hope to do after completing your EDC certificate?

My study of the hillside buildings in Aizawl, India has evolved into a Masters Thesis in Structural Engineering, which I will defend this November (of 2015). Next year, I will defend my Ph.D. dissertation and graduate in December of 2016. Upon graduation, I plan to transition to working in domestic and international policy on sustainable and resilient housing for under-served communities. I hope to gain a post-doctoral fellowship working with a global development agency before transitioning fully into my professional career.

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