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CMU's developing world program builds confidence in students

| Sunday, Oct. 13, 2013, 10:25 p.m.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
CMU professor Alex Hill introduces a room full of students and educators to CMU’s summer program that sends junior's, senior's and grad students to developing nations to act as professional consultants on projects ranging from clean water infrastructure to getting out public information about health issues at the Oakland Collaborative Innovation Center Geeks, Friday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
CMU professor Alex Hill introduces a room full of students and educators to CMU’s summer program that sends junior's, senior's and grad students to developing nations to act as professional consultants on projects ranging from clean water infrastructure to getting out public information about health issues at the Oakland Collaborative Innovation Center Geeks, Friday.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
Siqi Wang 22, 1st year grad student at Carnegie Mellon University in Information networking, listens to CMU professor Alex Hill introducea room full of students and educators to a summer program that sends junior's, senior's and grad students to developing nations to act as professional consultants on projects ranging from clean water infrastructure to getting out public information about health issues at the Oakland Collaborative Innovation Center Geeks, Friday.

Change the world?

On paper, with her undergraduate degree in math from Spellman College and a master's degree from Carnegie Mellon University's information security technology and management program, Adrienne White looked up to the task.

But White, 29, of Washington said she didn't begin to realize her potential until she stumbled into an opportunity to volunteer as a professional consultant in West Africa through the university's Technology Consulting in the Developing World program.

“CMU is really a very competitive school, and it's tough, it's difficult. My confidence, ego and self-esteem all took a hit,” she said. “But to leave CMU and go to Ghana and make such an impact gave me evidence that I could actually do something big and succeed.”

Alex Hills, one of two professors who started the program, said other students have made similar comments.

“This is a huge confidence builder,” he said of the program. “It's not only what the students do for the client, but what this does for the student.”

White and classmate Kathryn Dickens spent 10 weeks in Ghana in 2008, advising Ashesi University on a project to upgrade a records management information system. Although Ashesi drew students from throughout West Africa and had become a shining example of how an educational institution can help a region, it lacked the capability to digitally track enrollment and monitor grades and graduation requirements.

White and Dickens are among CMU graduates profiled in a new book, “Geeks on a Mission,” edited by Hills. Five students, whose consulting projects ran from 2008 to 2012, talk about their experiences in a diary format.

The program has become so successful that it draws more clients than money to cover the travel costs of students. The book, available through Amazon.com, will help raise money for that, Hills said.

Hills developed CMU's first wireless system in 1993 and has consulted throughout the developing world. His own work on projects, unrelated to the program — such as setting up a computer lab at an orphanage in Ethiopia, building public radio stations for Eskimos in Alaska, and helping small universities in Chile and South Africa boost their engineering and computer programs — persuaded him to involve students.

So Hills and professor Joseph Mertz hatched the program 11 years ago to encourage young professionals to tackle the challenges of poverty, health, sanitation and education through technology. Nearly 90 students have worked on projects for about three dozen organizations in 14 developing nations.

“(Our) partner organizations usually cannot afford market-rate consulting, and our students are only available for 10 weeks. That's why we try not to create dependency, but instead to build sustainable capacity,” Mertz explains in “Geeks on a Mission.”

Hills and Mertz visit each site once during the 10-week period. But the students — typically paired on projects — are on their own in the countries.

“They are not just interns; they are professionals in this program. They have some skills to offer,” Hills said. “But the important thing is the transformation that goes on in 10 weeks.”

Agencies that contract for students agree to provide housing and meals. An anonymous donor gives the university money to cover travel costs.

“It is eye-opening. It was the best time of my life,” White said. “I want to explore providing water, sanitation and housing to less-developed communities.

“In my heart, I know I can do it.”

Debra Erdley is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-320-7996 or derdley@tribweb.com.

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