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New Mexico State University’s Aggies Without Limits have been doing community service projects both abroad and locally since 2007, often facing challenges such as having no running water, lodging, or even electricity. But the can-do attitude of these hearty volunteers always prevails—even when it comes to hauling 700-pound steel beams by hand for a pedestrian bridge being erected on the Otero County Fairgrounds in Alamogordo, New Mexico.
Ordinarily, the Service-oriented group travels to a developing country each summer to complete a large project such as a water system or a bridge, saving smaller, local projects for the school year. Plans were set for several projects to be tackled in Nicaragua this past summer, but COVID-19 put a temporary halt to that plan and opened the way for a project that was already in the works.
“COVID moved the fairground project to the top of our list,” said Engineering Technology Professor and AWL adviser Kenny Stevens. Stevens was one of the founders of the group comprising approximately 40 students from all academic backgrounds.
Several years ago, a word-of-mouth trail led Otero County officials to the AWL group. An arroyo running through the fairgrounds required visitors to traverse a potentially hazardous narrow sidewalk on a busy street to get from the exhibits to the midway rides. They needed a pedestrian bridge.
In fall 2019, four engineering students took on the bridge design as a senior project, the requisite culmination of engineering curriculum. They analyzed the problem, created plans and determined the materials needed to construct the bridge. The plans were done, however the project stalled, awaiting the necessary permits.
“In the meantime, we discovered that the Boys and Girls Club were still trying to operate safely in the face of COVID conditions. They had an indoor facility that sits at the top of a slope,” said Stevens. “We built a 4,000-square-foot playground area by leveling the land, building two retaining walls and fences. One thing farm kids know is how to run a front-end loader. They moved 200-cubic-yards of dirt.”
The day after the playground area was finished, permits were in for the pedestrian bridge. The group made the forms for the foundation and added concrete and rebar. Then it came time to place four 36-foot, 700-pound steel beams.
“We tried with a forklift, we tried with a tractor. The machines could pick it up but couldn't get it out of the gate to the construction site,” said Stevens. “Solution: 17 NMSU students with masks. Just do it”!
They hope to remove the wooden form work, bolt all of the pieces together by early November and have the permits in place by the end of the semester.
“Jessica Heidel, Dean Hackett and Bill Mershon from the Otero County Fair Association and Rudy Wood from Jack Wayte Construction have been invaluable in moving the bridge project forward,” Stevens said.
Some 20-25 AWL members and Stevens spent every other weekend throughout the summer, continuing into the fall semester, working on these projects. While COVID may have interfered with the group’s plans for Nicaragua, members were careful to follow health and safety guidelines.
Hugo Sanchez, AWL vice president and assistant project manager was responsible for checking member’s temperatures prior to heading out to the work sites and ensuring that masks were worn and social distancing was followed. The mechanical engineering sophomore has been working with concrete since he was 11 and gained experience working with iron through his family’s welding business and also helped direct some of the site activities. He joined AWL as a freshman and says the experience has taught him patience, calm and focus. Most of all, he said, “It’s like a family; we are very close and help each other through hard moments. It is very welcoming.”
“We hope to be able to go to Nicaragua next summer,” said Lucas Rivera, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering this December and will continue on at NMSU for a master’s degree. Rivera was one of the project managers for the Nicaragua projects and also for the Alamogordo project. “It’s fun to do the big international projects and great to travel, but it’s also great to do these projects so close to home that will last and benefit our own communities.”
Rivera, a member of AWL for three years said the experiences have given him valuable experience that he would not have gotten in the classroom. “First and foremost, we do it for the community service. But it helps when you go for and interview for that dream job and they ask you about any projects that you have done and you can say I designed a bridge for a community in Guatemala, or a water system that served a remote community.”
Beyond hands-on experience, the students learn from each other.
Alessa Ibanez, early childhood education major and president of AWL. Ibanez, who handles logistics, planning and organization for the group, said that everyone learned a lot during the process.
“I am planning to be a teacher and found that putting people in a real-world situation is very important to learning. That’s what I want to see in my students someday. I want to see them have that ah-hah moment when the lightbulb goes on.,” she said.
Above all, the most valuable lesson comes from the act of performing community service, said Ibanez. “Our goal is to help underserved communities. These are hard-working, selfless students who have busy lives but still make time to impact the community.”
To learn more about AWL, visit https://aggieswithoutlimits.org/, or contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.