Clemson University students prepare for job market by helping Haitians
Hundreds of Clemson University students have sharpened their career skills with the help of a program that is celebrating its 10th anniversary, but the work they do has provided their clients with something even more fundamental than a job.
Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries has received several honors for helping install the first and only municipal chlorinated water system in Haiti. What has received less attention, though, is how the group prepares its students for the job market.
The student-run organization is structured like a corporation, giving members a chance to serve in management and work with students outside their own majors. It has grown from a single student searching for a service-learning project to an organization with multiple divisions, including finance, marketing and technical solutions.
Autumn Brown, a senior who is majoring in environmental engineering, started as a member of a project team and rose through the ranks to become program director, the group’s top-ranking student. It was a lot of pressure, and she felt crushed at times, but she grew.
Brown said she learned time management, delegation and how industry can work with nonprofits for positive change.
“Our world is so much bigger than the little things we have going on in college,” said Brown, who is headed for a job at Eastman Chemical Company after graduation.
Clemson Engineers for Developing Countries, or CEDC, is offered as a course through Creative Inquiry, a Clemson program that encourages undergraduate research. Many of the group’s projects have focused on clean water, sanitation and health in Haiti’s Central Plateau, but members have also done other work, such as installing solar panels and repairing the roof at a school.
About 90 students representing more than 30 majors are involved each semester. More than 800 students have participated in 10 years.
Most students remain in Clemson or visit Haiti for a few days over spring break, but as many as four interns at a time are living and working in Haiti for as long as a year each.
Caleb Cantrell, a senior majoring in microbiology, was among those who went to Haiti as an intern. He performed water sanitation hygiene assessments of 40 rural schools, testing their water and talking to community members.
“What I did in Haiti is exactly what I want to do with my life, and I will absolutely love it if I get to do that,” Cantrell said. “I think CEDC gives you an opportunity to home in on what you love. You get to choose a niche and go into it.”
Students enter CEDC as members of project teams whose work ranges from installing biodigester sanitation systems to providing residents with do-it-yourself water filters. Students vote to determine who advances into management and who continues moving up.
David Vaughn, a professor of practice who oversees the group, has veto power over student decisions but has never used it.
Vaughn said he initially tried running CEDC as a more traditional classroom but that it didn’t work. He instead shifted gears and used his experience from his previous career at Fluor Corp. to help students create the corporate structure.
While CEDC has no profits and losses, there are other similarities to an actual corporation, Vaughn said.
“A lot of it has to do with working with people,” he said. “A lot of the times when we’re having our weekly project management meetings, it’s not necessarily that we’re talking about technical problems. We’re talking about personnel problems. How do we move something forward?”
One of the group’s requirements is that students create an account through LinkedIn, a social media site for professionals. The idea is to establish a positive online presence for employers to find when students begin the job hunt.
An annual contest encourages students to make the most of the site. The more features they use, the more points they receive. Students are grouped into two categories– newbies and veterans.
A chart that Vaughn provided showed that LinkedIn is catching on among CEDC students. The average scores for newbies and veterans in 2014 were both 75. But sharp rises in each of the next three years sent the average score to 337 for newbies and 709 for veterans.
Sarah Grace Walker, a senior majoring in marketing and graphic communications, said her LinkedIn profile helped her land a job with Salesforce.
She used her account to connect with a list of former students given to her by a professor. One of those former students was in some of the same organizations as Walker, she said.
They had conversations online, which led to talking on the phone, she said.
“She ended up giving my resume to the hiring manager and started me in the process,” Walker said.
Jennifer Paloni, a senior majoring in civil engineering, said she started her LinkedIn account because of her involvement with CEDC and used her page to announce that she had landed a job with the company HDR.
“I’ve been getting dozens of comments from people saying, ‘Welcome to the HDR family!’” Paloni said. “I’ve had a couple people from the Charlotte office message me directly and say, ‘I can’t wait to meet you!’”
The seed that would become CEDC started to germinate a decade ago when Jeff Plumblee, who was then a graduate student, crossed paths with the Episcopal Diocese of Upper South Carolina. The diocese was working to upgrade Cange’s 30-year-old water system.
Plumblee and six other civil engineering students began designing a new system in 2009, just a few months before a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck near Port Au Prince, killing more than 200,000 people.
While Cange suffered little damage, the population swelled as earthquake survivors migrated to the region in search of medical treatment. Then came the cholera epidemic, which killed nearly 10,000 and hit the Central Plateau particularly hard.
The students’ project couldn’t have come at a better time. They installed the municipal chlorinated water system, a project that was funded with $1.3 million from the diocese.
The project provided clean water for about 10,000 Haitians and put CEDC on the map, helping it win a 2014 Heiskell Award from the Institute of International Education.
Brad Putman, associate dean for undergraduate studies in the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, congratulated CEDC on its many awards and its 10th anniversary.
“Through transformative, multi-disciplinary experiences, CEDC is serving the developing world, while developing those who serve,” he said. “The group’s honors are well deserved.”
As the group celebrates its 10th anniversary, it continues to change lives as far away as Haiti and as close to home as Clemson– and is leaving students with lessons they can carry far beyond their college years.
“There is time to make time for other people,” Brown said, “no matter what stage of life you’re in.”
To learn more about CEDC, you can attend its annual end-of-semester summit, where students will be showcasing several of their projects. The CECD Summit starts at 3 p.m. on April 26 and will be held at the Humanitarian Engineering Research and Design Studio of Clemson University, 502 Lebanon Road, Pendleton.