For six weeks this summer the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center is hosting three undergraduate engineering students from the Albert Nerken School of Engineering at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Joya Debi, Brandon Bunt and Seena Seon in front of the hotel at the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center

The Guatemala experience is the newest element of a long-established summer abroad program at the Cooper Union. International experiences align with Peter Cooper’s progressive vision of education to make society more just. SC Associate Lisa Shay, who is also an Associate Dean of Engineering at Cooper Union, developed the Guatemala experience in cooperation with Sister Virginia (“Ginny”) Searing, President of the Board of Directors of the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center Association, and two of the Center’s senior staff members, Mrs. Marta Leticia García Ajucum, Executive Director, and Mr. Luciano Laynez Perez, Director of Finances and Administration.

Sister Ginny was happy to support this effort. She said, “The Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center has always encouraged and supported university students to spend time with them whether it be programs for academic credit or as volunteers. They have been able through the years to enrich our own programs as well as give our staff a wider international experience. Dr. Lisa Shay has made our collaboration very smooth and professional. We are very grateful to her and look forward to a very long on-going commitment!”

The three students are Ms. Joya Debi, a rising junior in the Electrical Engineering program, Ms. Seena Seon, a rising junior in the Chemical Engineering program, and Mr. Brandon Bunt, a rising senior in the General Engineering program. Joya is recommending how to lower energy costs at the Center by introducing solar energy. She is analyzing their electricity costs and measuring the amount of available solar insolation to determine the optimum panel sizing. She is also exploring the feasibility of various energy and water storage systems to provide electricity and water when the local grid is down, a frequent occurrence in Guatemala.

Seena and Brandon are working together on a project to turn organic waste into biochar, a type of charcoal that can be used as a soil amendment to improve soil fertility, enhance plant growth, and provide water filtration. Turning organic waste into biochar also helps mitigate climate change, as composting and burning both release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, while producing biochar does not. Brandon and Seena are analyzing the amount of organic waste produced by the onsite restaurant and “CIPCA”, Centro-Integral de Producción y Capacitación Agroambiental, a model farm on the Center property that teaches local farmers better techniques for animal husbandry and ways to increase crop yield.

Brandon and Seena analyzing measurements taken at the CIPCA farm.

The students are enjoying fantastic hospitality in Guatemala! Seena remarked, “Everyone at or associated with the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center has been super accommodating and generous.” The students are staying in the well-appointed rooms in the newly-renovated hotel, eating at the gourmet restaurant, and have their own office in the new administration building.

The Center staff have taken them to the nearby city of Santa Cruz where the students enjoy shopping and a wider experience of local cuisine. The House of Formation has also been wonderful! Sisters Nora, Rosenda, and Maria Pablo hosted the students for lunch the first week of their visit, with a delicious meal of Guatemalan cuisine. The students celebrated the 4th of July with an All-American meal of hot dogs, hamburgers and apple pie, courtesy of gourmet chef Sister Nora!

The students are learning much more than engineering! To better understand how organic waste is handled, the students interviewed all the families who live along the entrance road to the Center. Seena said she was “awed by how friendly everyone was in answering our questions.” Brandon was surprised that some residents wanted to learn more about their project and improve how they handled their waste disposal. They also realized how much the local children have suffered during the pandemic: without internet, attending school virtually is not an option. Some students receive weekly worksheets, but even working on homework at night is a challenge with limited electricity.

They have also explored the wider area. Sister Rosenda drove the students to Nebaj, a town about two hours away where she runs a medical clinic. Joya noted how different life is from New York: “On our way there, we saw small pockets of communities – a strip consisting of a few houses, a store, and a taco truck. We also saw instances of a mom and her babies strapped on, walking for who knows how long. It really makes you think where they could be going and for how long they have been walking.” On the way back, the weather took a turn for the worse. She recalled, “The fog enveloped the roads so that we could barely see ahead of us. We were literally in a cloud.” Sister Rosenda assured them that she routinely drives in those conditions! 

Lunch at the House of Formation. Clockwise around the table: Seena, Sr. Maria Pablo, Sr. Ginny, Brandon, Sr. Nora, Sr. Rosenda, Clara, Joya

Finally, after an intense year of online learning, the students have benefitted spiritually from the change of pace in Guatemala. In Nebaj, Brandon visited the main church. “It was very beautiful and a special moment to stand beside locals who were praying. It reminded me of the atmosphere you feel when you walk into temples in Japan.” (Brandon’s mother is Japanese and he has lived in Japan.)

Joya said, “This trip is exactly what I needed to unglue myself from the internet. … I feel as though I have been more productive than I’ve been in a long while. Not only am I able to focus on my engineering projects, but I can also sit and immerse myself in my actual surroundings. Whether that be hiking or putting together my broken Spanish to make a new friend, I think I’m relearning what it means to truly be physically and mentally here.” 

Not only have the students benefitted from the program, but they have been great ambassadors of Cooper Union. As Sister Ginny remarked, “Seena, Joya and Brandon are three very intelligent, sensitive and hardworking students who have amazed me and our staff with their projects and illustrated in so many ways their desire to know us and the Guatemalan culture. They certainly give us a wonderful impression of young American students! Very refreshing!”

The students are grateful to the Sisters of Charity, the Barbara Ford Peacebuilding Center and Cooper Union’s Victor and Eleanor DiFranco Endowed Fund and the E. Durbin & J. Morris Innovation Fund for making this trip possible!