building earth - village houses in Tanzania

A Bit of Background, Part 2

I mentioned in part 1 that living in the bush in Tanzania changed my post Peace Corps plans. When I returned to the U.S. in late 2008 I began researching environmental and mechanical engineering graduate degree programs. The following is a mildly edited selection from my personal statement used in my applications to mechanical engineering master’s programs.

In the village I lived near the power lines did not stray far from the main road. The rolling hills and trees in the valley muted most of the lights and sounds of electricity. At a certain point, walking down the dirt path to the foot bridge over the river and up into the hills towards my house outside of the village, the shadows that could be seen were only those cast by the light from the moon. The fingers of the power plant didn’t reach any further into the mountains in this direction. But looking around the walls of the bowl created by the surrounding mountains, a sharp glimmer would pop out of the darkness. Sparkles of electricity shone out from the hills. Batteries charged by solar panels were providing some families – some of my students – light to enjoy dinner with and light to study by. Light from the sun still burned brightly for them long after the sun’s last rays had slipped behind the mountains for the evening.

building earth - waterfall in TanzaniaFor two years, those hills in Tanzania provided me with a shelter, a family away from home, an education, an opportunity to share my education, and an inspiration. Watching the effects of “progress” tear down trees, wash away soil nutrients, and pollute our river and source of drinking water for much of the year cemented my desire to work with our natural resources, not against them.

building earth - palm tree in Tanzania

In the middle of my second year in the Peace Corps, my school took our students on a field trip to a local hydro-electric plant that harnessed a natural waterfall. As the engineers explained to my students how the plant changed the energy from the moving water into the electricity that ran into the outlets at the small shops where they charged our cell phones and watched the football matches huddled around small grainy televisions, I stood absorbing the information. And I knew. I knew I was not ever going to be fully satisfied until I had taken everything apart and put it back together again, and ensured that it ran better than before. I knew that this was a way I could put together my love of science and my passion for living a sustainable life. I knew that I was going to finish my service in Tanzania and come home to study renewable energy and mechanical engineering.

Now I find myself, 5 years out of the Peace Corps, graduate degree in hand, looking ahead to the next steps, trying to figure out exactly what this means.

Life continues to be a grand adventure, and my hope is that I can live it in such a way that builds rather than destructs.