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RIT "Service Call" To Guatemala

Students practiced with different types of equipment and on repairs they might encounter while there.
Iris Allsani
Throughout the semester, engineering students worked with faculty and alumni to prepare for their trip to Guatemala to work in area hospitals as part of Engineering World Health. Students practiced with different types of equipment and on repairs they might encounter while there.

Five RIT engineering students left Rochester Sunday to put their skills to work fixing medical equipment in Guatemala. They will volunteer at two hospitals in Guatemala City, and a third in nearby Antigua.

Lisa Chiffolo is a fourth year Chemical Engineering student. "It sounded like a great opportunity to be able to do something good with my time as opposed to 'well, I worked an extra two months co-op.' Now, I'm going to go somewhere and hopefully help a lot of people."

Students have a list of the machines that need repairs. This trip is through the RIT chapter of a national group called Engineering World Health. It organizes repair efforts in summer and winter to places such as Guatemala, Rwanda and Tanzania.

Chiffolo jumped at the chance to join this long distance service call. She wants to start by gaining the trust of hospital staff. "I'm going to be looking for things like error messages, or lights, or maybe there isn't current traveling to certain pieces of the machine, so maybe there's a slight electrical component that's broken so I can just swap out."

She’s heard it's important to prove she is capable – then she will be offered plenty of electronics to repair. "What we're all gonna do, is, we're going to start on a machine that we are pretty familiar with, that we think that we can fix. And if we fix that machine, hopefully, the other employees at the hospital will bring us more stuff to fix."

Roosevelt Hospital, Guatemala City
Roosevelt Hospital, Guatemala City

Lisa admits this type of human interaction is not usually taught at RIT and she hopes to enter a stranger, leave a hero and not offend anyone. The work could be as simple as fixing an electrical cord - something that's not so simple in that country.

Students also plan a field trip to climb a volcano.

Guatemala's Pacaya Volcano
Guatemala's Pacaya Volcano

“There’s just three major volcanos in the near vicinity and we get to hike one of them, which will be really exciting. I've never hiked a volcano before. And I'm very outdoorsy. So, I'm really excited for that."

She admits she's a little nervous after one of her roommates told her about some of the poverty-stricken areas of Guatemala, which are near the hospitals. "I mean the pictures make it look nice, but she said 'look out, it's a very, very poor area.'"

She expects she'll want to tell everyone about her experiences when she gets back to Rochester.

RIT Assistant Professor of Biochemical Engineering Dr. Iris Allsani knows this volunteer work is valuable for these young engineers. "And, in a way, RIT and universities in general don't prepare (students) for that type of engineering.”

Allsani says students are used to textbooks and computer simulations and this real world experience actually teaches their brains to attack problems in different ways. “A type of engineering that you go to a poor country and you just have to really build an extension cord. When you just have to fix a power supply. Nothing sophisticated and nothing that you can go down the street and actually just buy and replace."

Students trained with volunteer RIT alumnae Saturday afternoons all semester and according to Allsani, seem to be very interested in developing these basic skills, which she says are not found in their books or computer models. She studies how our brains work. "The moment you start actually having to solve real problems in real time, right there, with limited tools and limited expertise, then the brain has a completely different way of thinking and attacking that problem."

Students return to Rochester January 18.