Like the author of “Engineers Without Borders,” I questioned the purpose of an engineering career. I was finishing a degree in computer engineering, and there were moments when I transported myself thirty years into the future and looked back on a life of sitting in front of a computer writing software for business executives. It didn't seem like a very worthy life, and I knew that I would have to do something better with my time before I got stuck in a career and had a house and a family tying me down. That's when I decided to join the Peace Corps.
At the time, I had an image of the Peace Corps sending liberal arts majors to African countries to live in mud huts. That stereotype may have been true twenty years ago, but the developing world is different now. Much of that world has electricity now, and through donations and aid programs, it also has a surprising number of computers. The problem is that these countries have the hardware but not the skills or training necessary in order to use it. Perhaps more than anything, developing countries need computer engineers who can pass on their skills and jump-start the computer industry in the third world. They also need teachers with a background in math, physics, and other engineering-related subjects to fill vacancies in public schools. And that was exactly what I did.
The Peace Corps sent me to Ghana, West Africa, as a math teacher in a small town in the middle of nowhere. My engineering skills were an enormous help because I was able to show my students how geometry, trigonometry, and algebra can be used out in the “real world.” I was also able to take on additional projects, such as filling in for the physics teacher. (The only physics teacher quit to find a job in the city.)
Believe it or not, this tiny town actually had a computer lab, as mandated by the education department of the national government. Of course, not one teacher was computer literate, so the machines just sat around collecting savannah dust. I used this opportunity as a basis for a “Girls' Club” (discrimination against girls is rampant in West Africa) and taught computer classes to the members twice a week. The complete story is here.
I'm sure that Engineers Without Borders program is an excellent program, but your readers should know that there are other options. The Peace Corps always has a demand for volunteers with engineering skills, and if they accept your application, they will send you to a country where those skills have a direct impact in helping others. You can actually see first-hand the benefits of your hard work. They also provide everything you need — round-trip plane tickets, health care, and a monthly stipend for the two-year service. And who knows? Maybe the economy will have turned around just in time for your return. In my mind, joining the Peace Corps is one of the noblest choices that an engineer could make.