Building Bridges to Prosperity

Rutgers B2P Connects Isolated Communities to Schools, Hospitals, and Jobs

Many college students spend their summers working retail jobs. Others conduct research. Some might even score first-rate internships.

But if you’re a member of Rutgers Bridges to Prosperity, you could spend your vacation building a pedestrian footbridge alongside residents of an isolated Bolivian community while sleeping in tents, bathing in a river, and trading in your morning latte for a more local preference—coca leaves.

Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) is an international non-profit organization that works to connect crucial infrastructure—such as schools, hospitals, and jobs—to isolated communities in developing countries.

During the summer of 2016, two Rutgers students tagged along with University of Colorado Boulder to learn the ropes in Churo Alto, Bolivia. Rutgers B2P returned to Bolivia last summer for their first solo bridge-building mission.

The team included eight undergraduate students, three graduate students, two professional engineers and the residents of Palmar Pampa B, a small start-up community in central Bolivia. The diverse group had eight weeks to construct a 165-foot bridge connecting the residents’ homes to their farms, which flooding made inaccessible during the wet season.

The team spent 10 hours a day, six days a week building the professional foot bridge with materials ranging from rocks and wood to steel cables and beams.

The work was challenging—and sometimes risky. Carolina Acevedo, the chapter’s event coordinator, recalls a day when the team had to pass four bridge cables—each over 50 meters long—to the other side of the river.

“The weight of these cables made the process dangerous because a person in the wrong place can be injured or thrown by a moving cable,” said Acevedo, a junior majoring in social work.

It took the entire Rutgers team and all of the community members to cross the cables, but they managed to do so safely and successfully.

While the summer is the zenith of the year, Rutgers B2P spends the entire school year planning for the trip. From selecting the site to designing the bridge, chapter members guide the process from beginning to end.

“These bridge builds definitely empower students when they see just how much their actions can change the world,” said Sharon Xiao, a civil engineering sophomore and treasurer of Rutgers B2P. “It was an amazing feeling to see what started out as a 2D-design on AutoCAD become a 50.4 meter bridge that'll help almost a thousand people and many more generations to come.”

But Rutgers B2P is not all nuts and bolts. Many of the chapter’s activities revolve around fundraising. Rutgers B2P had to raise approximately $30,000 last year to cover expenses. They expect this year’s bridge, which is planned for another Bolivian site, to be even more costly.

“Fundraising and donations are important not just because they help us build a bridge; they also help out thousands of people have an easier life in each community,” said Osbel Dorvil, a senior majoring in civil and environmental engineering and Rutgers B2P project lead.

He says the impact of last year’s bridge cannot be understated. In addition to enhancing safety (residents don’t have to hike through the woods to cross the river anymore), the bridge is helping the start-up community become more established. Dorvil says they are expecting to have electricity in the upcoming year.

“The mission of B2P offers our students the opportunity to apply engineering theory in a very real-life, practical way,” said Ilene Rosen, associate dean of Rutgers School of Engineering. “They have the opportunity to be involved with all aspects of the build, from conception to completion, while simultaneously seeing the direct impact their work has on the people who will be utilizing and benefiting from the bridge. Our students have described their B2P experience as life-changing.”

For more information about Rutgers B2P or to learn how you can get involved, visit www.facebook.com/b2p.rutgers or email b2p.rutgers@gmail.com.

Story by Manya Goldstein