Academics and Research

DU student engineers a better future for remote village

Engineering can be all about charts and graphs and numbers, or it can be about mud, leeches, and changing the lives of some of the most isolated people on the planet.

For University of Denver master’s candidate Jeff La Frenierre, making a difference is paramount. Working with Engineers Without Borders (EWB), a nonprofit humanitarian organization, La Frenierre spent weeks in a remote high-mountain village in Laos, miles from the nearest road, helping bring fresh, clean water to 170 villagers who were living on whatever filthy water they could extract from a muddy puddle in the jungle.

“Being able to do something constructive and to walk away at the end of the day knowing you have made something positive that changed somebody’s life is more important to me than anything else,” La Frenierre says. “There were 170 people basically trying to use a puddle of water that’s refilled one drip at a time.”

La Frenierre, a 1994 engineering graduate from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs who also completed a geographic information systems (GIS) certificate at Fort Lewis College in 2006, found out about the isolated village through a friend working for the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

The village, Ban Phakeo (bahn PAH-kay-oh), is in northeastern Laos, a 2.5 hour jungle trek by foot from the nearest road. He learned villagers there survived on substance farming with an average household income of $150 a year, with no plumbing or sewer.

La Frenierre built support for the project at the EWB chapter he works with at Fort Lewis. In December, he traveled with a colleague to the village, flying from Denver to Minneapolis to Tokyo to Bangkok to Vientiane (the capital of Laos), to a provincial airport before riding by truck to the edge of the jungle, and then, that long, muddy walk.

“It’s probably as remote and undeveloped a community as you will find in the world,” he says.

After locating a clean stream more than two miles into the jungle, La Frenierre roughed out a path for a pipeline. He used maps generated from space to estimate elevations and terrain contours, and villagers dug the trench that would protect a PVC plastic pipe system designed to provide fresh water for decades.

When the trench was ready, La Frenierre returned to the village in May with a team. Work began by hauling miles of piping and sacks of concrete by foot into the jungle. He and 11 other students and professors lived with the villagers, sharing their meager food supplies, and enduring heat, leeches, biting insects and muck.

“It was probably the most physically demanding two weeks of my life,” he says. “Everyone got cuts and scrapes and bites. You couldn’t put your hand on a piece of vegetation without getting a handful of thorns.”

But when the work was done and the spigot released a stream of clean, clear water, La Frenierre says the looks on the faces of the people there convinced him that Engineers Without Borders had changed the lives of everyone in the village and the generations who would come after them.

La Frenierre says he chose DU for its commitment to making a difference on a global scale, and he chose geography for his master’s degree because it represents the study of how people relate to their world.

Another DU graduate student, Michael Kolesar, has registered with Engineers Without Borders, hoping to start a DU chapter. Kolesar, a civil engineering graduate of the University of Colorado working on a master’s in real estate construction management, says without a civil engineering program, DU has lacked the natural home for EWB. But, he says, EWB needs many disciplines, from students of international studies to business majors to communications.

“Honestly, it just takes people who are enthusiastic,” he says. “You get to see places you never thought you’d see. And you see the direct impact of your efforts.”

Athough La Frenierre has worked as an engineer, his next goal is a doctorate and then either starting a foundation dedicated to helping developing nations or a teaching position where he can encourage the next generation of scholars to reach out to the world.

“Everyone can make a difference,” La Frenierre says. “We were able to construct a water system that allows these people, for the first time in their lives, to have clean water. It definitely changed their lives.”

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