Nov. 12, 2019

Building better engineers

Students gain real-world experience through global learning opportunities
homes of hop
homes of hope Schulich School of Engineering

Civil engineering student Stephanie Isilebo found her career calling while swinging a hammer in one of the poorest regions of Mexico.

Taking part in Homes of Hope, a volunteer experience building homes for needy families, Isilebo says she’s ready to dedicate her career to building infrastructure in communities that need it most. 

“It was honestly a life changing experience for me,” Isilebo says of the two-day build in Tijuana, Mexico.  

“Being able to give back and build a home, which we take for granted, for a needy family was amazing. It made me realize that is what I want to work towards in my career. Especially, coming from Nigeria where infrastructure isn’t as built up as in North America. I really want to go back home and give back to my community,” she said.

Build a home, change a life

In the past decade, nearly 500 students from the Schulich School of Engineering have taken part in Homes of Hope trips to Mexico. This unique global learning opportunity wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Boardwalk CEO and co-founder Sam Kolias.

Kolias was already volunteering in Mexico when he decided to pay for 20 engineering students to join him on the next Homes of Hope build. The concept was simple: build a home, change a life forever.

He knew the lives of volunteers are frequently altered as much as those who received homes. Kolias wanted future engineers from his alma mater to understand how their talents could make a difference in this world, said his daughter Samatha Kolias-Gunn.

“Homes of Hope is all about giving a family a home, and not only a home, but a better foundation for the rest of their lives. Really, in experiencing that, there’s nothing that compares to that joy that changes our lives too,” said Kolias-Gunn, who was speaking on behalf of her father at an event celebrating 10 years of Homes of Hope trips with the Schulich School of Engineering.

Then Associate Dean of Students Dr. Lynne Cowe Falls, PhD, held an information session hoping to get a few students to express interest in the trip. She found herself meeting with 75 students eager to find out exactly how to be chosen.

“The next morning, I came across the first person sleeping in the corridor. There were 45 kids sleeping in the corridor of F-block from 7 pm the night before,” Cowe Falls recalls. “To Boardwalk and Sam Kolias’ credit, he said on the spot, I will take two teams. I will take 40 students. He doubled his donation on the spot!”

Global learning experiences

Year after year, students returned from the experience with their eyes opened and a new passion for using their skills to help others. These trips with a purpose helped students move beyond their comfort zones, develop teamwork and problem-solving skills while forging lasting friendships.

In an increasingly connected world where engineers are called on to think globally, these international learning opportunities are key to training the engineers of tomorrow, said Anders Nygren, acting dean of the Schulich School of Engineering.

“Student success means more than good grades. It’s all about fostering global citizenship,” said Nygren. “Homes of Hope has really set the standard for international student volunteerism, and helped the Schulich School of Engineering see the importance of providing global learning experiences for all students.”

As part of its commitment to provide students with hands-on and real-world work opportunities, the engineering school created Catalyst – a student initiative fostering engineering leadership and entrepreneurial spirit.

Catalyst will offer new mentorship programs, expand the successful engineering leadership program and grow global engineering experiences.

This year alone engineering students will be installing local water filtration systems and fuel-efficient stoves in homes in Guatemala, immersing themselves in a village in Bali to help design a spring water pipeline or plastic garbage recycling system and visiting Morocco to explore bringing wind turbine technology there.  

Isilebo is thrilled the Schulich School of Engineering is expanding its global engineering experiences for students. She says providing these types of meaningful learning opportunities abroad helps make well-rounded students with the technical and professional skills they need to enter the workplace.

“It also creates passion, it creates that fire, it creates people that are really excited to do engineering,” said Isilebo. “It’s definitely going to make me a better engineer.”