‘Learning to fail’ may sound like a paradox, but it was one of the most important lessons taught to mechanical engineering student Lauren Rivera ’18 during her ten-week experience in Central America this summer.
From building a ramp to make a local recycling center more accessible to spending time adjusting wheelchairs, there were bound to be some hiccups. Rivera found herself attempting to communicate with the local people, asking for materials that weren’t available. She found herself designing structures for which the tools needed were not available.
Rivera said, though, that each failure allowed her to grow and adapt.
“It’s part of design, part of execution, part of doing something that has never been done before,” Rivera said.
Familias Especiales, the nonprofit organization for which Rivera worked, is located in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. She traveled there with the Engineers in Technical Humanitarian Opportunities of Service-Learning (ETHOS) to work on projects that improved the intensity of labor for workers as well as provided aid for handicap people.
It has been a dream of Rivera’s to participate in the ETHOS program since seventh grade growing up helping her dad fix rental properties, Rivera had some background in using tools but said that this experience shaped her as an engineer.
“It’s an entire different way of engineering with problem solving and creativity,” Rivera said.
According to Rivera, her service work was much less about taking expertise to the organization and fixing their problems and more about finding new approaches and learning a lot in the process.
Still, despite the challenges, or failures, in her engineering projects, Rivera said the most challenging part was “not being understood.”
“Being 100 percent immersed in a language that’s not your own is really exhausting,” Rivera said. “But all of the people were very patient.”
Aside from her service work, a highlight for Rivera was being able to spend time with the people from Familias Especiales and interacting with them at the organization’s recycling center, special education classes, yogurt factory and in physical therapy.
“We failed a few times, but we learned that the relationships we were building were far more significant to any of our shortcomings,” Rivera said.