Bridges to Prosperity

While some students worked at camps or enjoyed the beach this past summer, a select group of Penn State students spent their time changing lives.

 The Penn State chapter of Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) traveled to the remote village of La Candelaria, Panama, to build a suspended pedestrian bridge.

“The goal of our trip this year, just like all the other years, is to provide a pedestrian bridge for a community in need,” said Stefany Baron, a junior civil engineering major. “That way they have a safer means of crossing the river to get to schools, health care, jobs, etc.”

Preparation for the bridge began roughly seven months before the group of 10 reached La Candelaria.

The project manager announced the members of the travel team in late November before winter break, and as soon as the spring semester began they hit the ground running. Members were each assigned a different task to focus on for the entirety of the semester. Tasks included assignments like designing the bridge, planning the construction schedule, estimating materials needed and more. Additionally, all members had to participate in a 10-hour Occupational Safety and Health Administration certificate course and receive proper immunizations before being cleared for travel.

They also worked with the national organization throughout their planning process and participated in three technical advisory board calls before the trip.

“The calls gave us a chance to communicate with B2P engineers and in-country staff to ensure that all of our designs, calculations, and plans were going OK,” said Baron.

Seven months later, the students boarded the six-hour flight to Panama and landed in Panama City before taking a three-hour car ride to La Candelaria. The group's living quarters were another 20-minute hike away from the actual bridge site, a trek they made daily.

After months of planning and preparation, they were finally able to begin construction. Every day the group woke up at 5:45 a.m. and hiked to the bridge site. Once on site, the team never stopped moving. They were constantly transporting materials, bending rebar, mixing concrete, and laying down masonry.

“Building this bridge was one of the most physically exhausting things I have ever done in my life, but it was also the most rewarding,” said Stefany Baron.

The students worked tirelessly for a month, but in the end, they were not able to finish the construction.

“It’s always a challenge to finish it in one short month. This year the bridge was really massive and it was impossible to finish,” said Baron.

Though they didn’t finish their goal, the team was proud of the significant amount of work they had accomplished. By the time they left, they had constructed roughly 40 percent of the bridge including all of the excavations, six of the tiers, all of the cable work, and two of the anchors. Two months later, local villagers completed the bridge and the community could utilize it.

For many of the students, Baron included, this was not their first B2P trip. She was a member of the group that constructed a similar suspension bridge in Tucuecito, Panama, last summer. Just like this year, the 2015 group was unable to finish the bridge construction in such a short amount of time. Since then, that bridge has also been completed, and on this trip, Baron was able to walk across the bridge she helped build last year for the very the first time.

When not working, the team was able to integrate into the village and spend quality time with the people they were working so hard to help.

“Whether it was playing soccer, going to the beach, or just working on site, all those experiences with the community are more fun than anything else,” said Baron.

Overall the trip was a rewarding experience that the group will never forget. They learned far more than just valuable engineering skills. They learned about a new culture, leadership, teamwork, and open-mindedness.

“Lastly, I think each of us learned a little bit about ourselves. For me, personally, I never realized how strong I could be until I was placed in a third world country where I had no choice but to be strong,” said Baron.