Students planned the construction of a community center in India, COVID-19 ruined their timeline


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Colin Phillips | Daily Texan Staff

Colin Phillips and Elise Higgins spent eight months planning and fundraising for the construction of a multipurpose community center in Siripudi, India. But after the pandemic hit, their project never left paper. 

“It’s not what I expected,” civil engineering senior Higgins said. “Usually you complete the project designs, start construction in April and travel to the country to see its progress during the summer. I really wanted to interact with the community and see them enjoy the community center.”

Higgins and civil engineering senior Phillips were part of Projects with Underserved Communities, a year-long program where engineering and social work majors apply course content to serve communities in one of 10 developing countries.

Last year, four projects for Mexico, Costa Rica, Thailand and India were developed by four different teams. Each project was delayed in March because of COVID-19 and will be completed by a new team of students this year.

“It’s a year-long course, and since I completed it, I can’t take it again,” Phillips said. “The new team will expand with new ideas on our project, and will be working closely with (the old team) to help execute it.”

Higgins said the community center is the first permanent structure in the village and will be used for educational, medical and safety purposes.

“It floods a lot during monsoon season, so this gives the community a place to stay safe,” Higgins said. “Schooling for young boys (has) started in the community … and we hope with the new center everyone in the village will have access to education.” 

Phillips said his team worked with the nonprofit organization Church Auxiliary for Social Action to help decide what project to do and how to implement it.  

“(CASA) is our contact on the ground,” Phillips said. “Our main focus is to develop something to solve a community’s problem, so it’s really important to have strong, steady communication throughout the entire process.”

Higgins said last year her team raised over $20,000 through Hornraiser by tabling on Speedway. She said fundraising during COVID-19 will be challenging, though, because they can only use Hornraiser. 

“We want to raise as much money as possible because with more money (the new team) can change the scope of the project by adding things, like a sanitation center,” Higgins said.  

Civil engineering senior Rachel Sutherland is one of the seven new members on the team. Sutherland said it’s been difficult to pick up an unfinished project rather than creating a new one. 

“It’s hard to figure out exactly where we are in the process and … what needs to be done,” Sutherland said. “The schedule is just different because a lot of the things we would be working for have already been worked on.”

The village is in Andhra Pradesh, one of six states where more than 67% of India’s reported COVID-19 cases are located. Phillips said this has left the team unsure of how to move forward with the construction process. 

Despite these challenges, Phillips and Higgins said they are optimistic about the future of the project because of the extra time afforded to them. 

The team said the program gives students the opportunity to approach engineering from a humanitarian perspective.

“There’s sort of a disconnect,” Phillips said. “When we think of social good, we don’t usually think about engineering. But engineering has the tools and the capacity to have such an impact on communities. It has a human side."