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Life of a QUEST scholar on an international community project

20 November 2019

Tom Housden, a fourth-year QUEST undergraduate scholar sponsored by Morgan Sindall, tells us how ICE's scholarship scheme helped him work on a remote school construction project in Costa Rica with Newcastle University, in partnership with Raleigh International. 

Life of a QUEST scholar on an international community project
Tom Housden with the finished school building block

In July 2019, I travelled to Costa Rica to build a kitchen block for a primary school in an indigenous community which is largely cut-off from the modern world.

Before this trip, the local children would have to leave school at midday as there were no facilities to feed them – meaning they only had half a day of teaching. Building the kitchen block allowed them to receive a full day of teaching.

This trip is offered by Newcastle University in partnership with Raleigh International as part of the optional Global Engineering module. It's a Master’s year module aimed at challenging students to apply the skills they've learnt so far within an unfamiliar environment – and it certainly did that!

Choosing the module and fundraising

My Costa Rica journey started four years ago on a sunny Newcastle University open day.

I'd just returned from a school building project in Tanzania when I saw this module being advertised by the university, and I was sold; I had my heart set on it!

As with many charitable trips, a sizeable chunk of money is required. So it was time to get fundraising.

I decided that I was going to run a half-marathon to help raise money – this was very much a spur-of-the-moment decision!

In addition to the half-marathon, I used some of the money afforded to me by the ICE QUEST Undergraduate Scholarship. It was great to be able to invest this money into an engineering-related adventure, and another reason why I think the scheme is such a great opportunity for young engineers.

Preparing for an adventure

With fundraising complete and the trip fast approaching, it was time to pack for the month-long trip.

Packing light was essential; the local community was inaccessible to large vehicles – we would be dropped at the nearest town and left to hike several hours to our destination.

In preparation for the trip, I set about learning Spanish – I was never a fan of languages at school, so this was outside of my comfort zone.

I was chuffed with my linguistic efforts, only to learn a few days before we left that our hosts speak an indigenous language called Cabécar – a language very dissimilar to Spanish!

Oh well, it’s the thought that counts…

Building the kitchen

Collecting materials
Collecting materials

We were now in Costa Rica; we'd hiked several hours into Dorbata – the small village of 200 people in which we were staying.

The building process began by collecting materials from the community leaders' house with the help of a 4x4 from the local town. The humid 30-degree days made this quite a taxing job.

As a group of civil engineering students,we were all reasonably familiar with the construction process in the UK – however, in Costa Rica things are very different. Their national motto is Pura Vida – this means ‘pure life’, a relaxed attitude which is carried through all aspects of life – including construction.

This approach was applied to progress, quality, and even the in-country foreman’s attitude to safety, something very alien coming from the UK!

The isolation of the project also presented challenges. At one stage, we were running out of nails. In the UK this is easily solvable. However, the nearest store was several hours away, and we had to adjust the programme for several days before we could source nails.

Community engagement

Teaching English to the local community
Teaching English to the local community

On a trip like this, building the kitchen block isn't enough. I think real value is added by engaging with the locals and discussing the challenges they face – this information is then fed back to Raleigh International to help them target future expeditions.

As a team we conducted multiple house visits – unlike a British village, the houses are miles apart, as each house is essentially a farm, growing the food that it needs to feed the family.

We also used these visits to inform the locals of when we were teaching English and Spanish lessons. Teaching these lessons is something which I had great fun doing – as it was a challenge far outside of my comfort zone.

It was also vital to teach the locals how to maintain their new kitchen block. We taught them how to treat it with anti-termite paint and how to repair it, thus enabling the community to maximise its design life.

Staying sane

The homemade gym
The homemade gym

Spending three weeks on the same one-acre plot, isolated deep in the Costa Rican rainforest presents several issues; mainly trying to stay sane!

To make our free time enjoyable, we spent it like engineers: building stuff! We built a table tennis table (contributing to the aforementioned lack of nails!), a rainwater collect system, and several drying racks.

However our proudest achievement was the gym… out of spare materials and fallen wood, we created a pull-up bar, squat rack, bench press, and dip bars. The sessions were always followed by group yoga sessions – truly an experience which I will remember for the rest of my life!

The finished kitchen block

As the three-week building phase of the expedition came to an end, we had achieved our aim – the kitchen block was complete.

The locals were very pleased with their new school extension, and more importantly that their children could now go to school for the full day.

I was pleased with what we had achieved – however I was prouder of how we had progressed from a group to a team, and how we operated to achieve a common goal.

Trekking phase

After the construction phase there was a one-week trek through the heart of rural Costa Rica – this is where I learnt that Costa Rica is famous for its hilly terrain!

It was fantastic to be able to experience local culture by navigating our own way through the countryside, organising local hosts to stay with as we went.

One of the challenges we faced was that the most up-to-date map in Costa Rica was 70 years old – meaning towns and walking routes had completely changed. Thankfully we did have a GPS, so we always knew where we were – even if we weren’t on the map!

Straight back to work!

Upon my arrival back to the UK I had a few rest days before starting my third and final QUEST placement.

This summer I was on the Werrington Grade Separation project with Morgan Sindall – working to provide this vital £200 million upgrade to the East Coast Main Line for Network Rail.

It's been a jam-packed summer filled with adventure and memories – I'm very grateful to Newcastle University and Raleigh International for providing this opportunity, and of course to the QUEST scheme for providing both funds and the mindset to achieve.

  • Tom Housden, QUEST Undergraduate Scholar at Morgan Sindall at Morgan Sindall