Six weeks, thirteen students, and a whole lot of passion.

This summer, three Virginia Tech engineering students traveled with Engineers in Action (EIA) to Eswatini, a small, landlocked country in southern Africa. Their goal? To build a bridge over a river for communities in dire need. 

“The community we worked with was separated by the Ngwavuma river, and crossing it was very hazardous,” said Lucas Miller, senior civil engineering major and chapter president of EIA at Virginia Tech. “It caused a lot of injuries and deaths. There was a huge need there, and the bridge we built served over 7000 people.”

Alyssa Mangahas ’22, civil engineering; Evan Gross, junior construction engineering & management major; and civil engineering sophomore Joe Lorrain traveled to Godloza, Eswatini in late June where they worked with the local Swazis to improve access to medicine, supplies, and travel. 

Building the base of the bridge
Team members work together to construct one of the bases for the bridge. Photos courtesy of Engineers in Action.

Their group, EIA, is an international engineering, non-profit organization seeking to bring together students with a mission: building sustainable systems and infrastructure for under-resourced communities.

“I want to use my civil engineering degree to go out and help people,” said Lorrain. “This club was everything I wanted to do and more.” 

Over the 2021-22 academic year, the team designed a 207 foot (63 meter)-footbridge, while meeting with teammates from University of Iowa and University of Illinois at four review calls, or “project checkpoints.” 

Each checkpoint shepherded the team through the design process: from background information to construction and safety, from bonding with the community and to, of course, designing the bridge.

“The second checkpoint is when the design really kicks in and that’s when you have to do all of your calculations,” said Miller, “like forces on the cables, the decking, and on the abutments, which are concrete blocks that hold the bridge together.”

Professional engineers, like Engineering Education associate professor of practice and faculty advisor for EIA Matt James, provide the experienced oversight needed to review the students’ work. 

“The entire team is really motivated,” James said. “I've been really impressed at the level of professionalism that they've put into the design work, and the dedication put forth by the travel team.”

The second half of this project was focused on service, and engaging with the community was an important part of that. 

Student travelers alongside the community
Student engineers and Swazi locals smile for a picture together. Photos courtesy of Engineers in Action.

The student travelers were living alongside the community, as their living arrangements were with a local family in their homes. 

On weekdays, they arrived at the site at 8 a.m. 

“Our work involved digging, mixing concrete/mortar, passing rocks to be used in the walls, bending rebar, and laying deck boards, among other things,” Gross said. “The community was extremely helpful and skilled in all of the work we did on site.”

During the weekends students were free to explore. 

“We went white-water rafting, and hiked up Sheba's Breast Mountain,” Lorrain said, “we would play spikeball and soccer with the community.” 

Working with the community members of Eswatini was the most valuable part of the experience for Gross.

“The community worked harder than anyone I’ve ever seen,” he said. “They would even skip lunch if it meant they could keep working. Their passion and perseverance inspired the rest of us to match their work.”

Community members carrying supplies
Members of the community carry supplies to the work site, assisting the Engineers in Action staff and students. Photos courtesy of Engineers in Action.
Travelers dancing in cultural clothing alongside community
Student engineers learned about the Swazis and their culture: including dancing and clothing. Photos courtesy of Engineers in Action.

Although this was a service work project that was assisted by the Godloza community, funds needed to be raised in order to send the three students to Eswatini. 

The financial barriers have made it difficult for the group to send more travelers and have a deeper service impact. Miller said the club is working to become an official chapter to allow more opportunities. 

According to Mangahas, the former head of fundraising for the project, the team needed $3,125 per traveler that goes to the EIA organization.They raised the $9,375 from sponsors, civil engineering firms, EIA alumni, and with local businesses, like Sharkey’s. 

The Charles Edward Via, Jr., Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering also awarded Mangahas with a scholarship, and all three travelers received a scholarship from the College of Engineering Global Engagement Office. This money assisted in personal costs like flights, housing/food in-country, transportation in-country, equipment/materials for travel, etc. 

James said a more well-established chapter could indirectly help out with finances providing stability and opportunity for growth. 

“The more students that have the ability to travel and do this work,” Miller said, “the more communities and people we can serve.”


Written by Megan Reese, Engineering Education Writing Intern
Completed Bridge in Eswatini
After a year of designing, checking, and constructing, the Engineers in Action team completed a 200-foot bridge, connecting nearly 7000 community members. Photos courtesy of Engineers in Action.