In 2001, a small group of engineering students in Cambridge decided to form a new student society called Engineers Without Borders (EWB-UK). Since then, EWB-UK has grown into a national organisation with 35 university branches, seven regional professional networks and 4,500 members.
"During a recent visit to Nigeria... the most amazing thing was meeting people who told us their kids wouldn't be alive without EWB-UK."
Three of the current EWB-UK staff, and Department of Engineering alumni, spoke about their work and influences to Cambridge Alumni Magazine.
Andrew Lamb (Pembroke 2001) is chief executive of Engineers Without Borders UK (EWB-UK).
Joanne Beale (Selwyn 2005) is a programme support officer with the international NGO WaterAid.
Mo Ali (Christ's 2001) works in emergency relief.
Andrew Lamb: "EWB-UK started while I was a student at Cambridge. I got involved in 2002, when they held an event to recruit committee members to the new society. Listening to a presentation by someone who'd worked on water projects in Thailand during his gap year, I thought, that's what I want to be part of - so I volunteered immediately to help with fundraising.
"The most memorable moment was during a recent visit to Nigeria, to a project that began as a suggestion by Professor Peter Guthrie in the Engineering Department. I went with a former volunteer who'd worked on it to look at the impact we'd had. There was lots of new infrastructure to reduce the impact of flooding, and social improvements; but the most amazing thing was meeting people who told us their kids wouldn't be alive without EWB-UK.
"I've been chief executive of EWB-UK for the past four years, and every day I have an opportunity to make people in the UK aware of the power of engineering and the difference it can make. Its cause has made me stay involved with EWB-UK and grow it.
"For me, it has been transformative. I went to university wanting to be a rock-concert designer, but I quickly realised that was pretty ephemeral and the opportunity to make a difference in people's lives was right in front of me with EWB-UK.
"It's a learning and leadership factory for engineering: the engineering rigour comes from degree courses, and the transferable skills come from EWB-UK. You become an engineer without borders, and you go on throughout your engineering career to change the world for the better."
Joanne Beale: "At school I didn't know anything about development work. I travelled for the first time between school and university. It was just for a month, but I went to Venezuela and stayed in a village where collecting water involved a half-hour walk with a bucket to a hole in the ground. It got me thinking about how the rest of the world lives.
"For a long time at Cambridge I was frustrated with wanting to apply what I was learning to something that mattered to me. When it came to my fourth-year project I was determined to do something that had an impact on people. Thanks to Professor Peter Guthrie and an EWB-UK bursary, I worked in Bhutan on a rural household waste management project.
"My fieldwork was in remote areas where until recently people had consumed only what was produced locally. With the advent of packaged food, they had to work out what to do with the non-biodegradable waste. Mine was an early scoping study to find out what people were doing by instinct, and what solutions they'd accept and would fit in with their way of life.
"During my final year I was heavily involved with EWB-UK. I took on management of the bursary panel in Cambridge because I wanted to enable others to have the opportunities I'd had.
"There's something special about being part of a community of people passionate about the same issues, so finding EWB-UK in my fourth year was pivotal for me.
"Development is a difficult career to aim at; there are few jobs and they demand a specific set of skills, engineering as well as social. Being involved with EWB-UK gave me those skills, and the engineers I met inspired me."
Mo Ali: "The idea that engineers can be sent to emergencies always fascinated me. My parents are Pakistani, so I travelled there a lot as a child and saw the disparities that exist in access to health and education.
"EWB-UK was a perfect platform to bring my interests and skills together. At my first EWB-UK meeting I was struck by the fact that rather than telling us what to do, we were working out how we could be most useful, both to fellow students and to projects abroad. After that, I did a bit of everything for EWB-UK.
"In 2002/3 I ran two projects in Ecuador sponsored by Mott MacDonald, and in my final year I was in charge of research for the EWB-UK national committee. I was lucky enough to get funding for my own masters project in Nicaragua and Ecuador. Contaminated water is a major issue, and the project looked at low-cost ways of manufacturing ceramic water filters.
"EWB-UK exposed me to all the different levels of development, from working with local communities to pitching to donors at the UN. It has been the platform for my career for the eight years since I left Cambridge.
"It's easy to think you have all the answers; EWB-UK helped me realise you don't. Lots of the time, problems can be solved by local people, and realising that at a young age is really useful.
"I've worked in six African countries, and all that stemmed from the experience I gained through EWB-UK. I did Manufacturing Engineering, so most of my work is with governments and NGOs in systems and planning.
"My last long-term posting - three-and-a-half years - was in Sudan and South Sudan. The South completely collapsed after decades of war, so it's not reconstruction work because there was nothing there to start with. I've been working on getting a health system developed, and co-ordinating the huge number of health NGOs, and emergency preparedness."
For more information on EWB-UK, visit ewb-uk.org.
This feature originally appeared in CAM 67, the University of Cambridge Alumni Magazine