KINGSTON, R.I. – April 18, 2014 – When Maria Briones visited Guatemala with the University of Rhode Island student group Engineers for a Sustainable World, she was heartbroken by the difficult circumstances the poor residents faced due to a lack of clean water. It was a turning point in her life, an experience that convinced her to make the provision of clean water a career goal.
As she prepares to graduate from URI in May, Briones is ready to follow her calling, beginning with graduate school and a stint in the Peace Corps.
“That trip to Guatemala impacted me a lot personally, to see so many people who lack this basic human right: access to proper sanitation and clean water,” said Briones, who grew up in Cranston and Johnston. “I understand the technical side of the issue and the health-related aspect, and I know I can help these people on a personal level.”
Briones went to the highlands of Guatemala in 2011 with URI Associate Professor Vinka Craver as part of an effort to build an onsite wastewater treatment facility for a school in the poor village of San Mateo Ixtatan.
“It was a bit of a culture shock to see their circumstances, but it showed us the reality of why we were there,” she said. “There was a lot of personal growth, too, because I got to run a workshop for the kids in the school, and it motivated me to keep going and work on more of these projects.”
For Briones, the quest to deliver clean water is personal. Her family immigrated to the United States from Ecuador when she was a baby. Although she has known only a lifestyle in which toilets always flush and clean water always flows from the tap, she frequently thinks of her extended family in South America who views such plumbing as luxuries.
“That could have been me,” Briones says.
A civil engineering and Spanish major, she spent a year in Spain as part of the URI International Engineering Program, studying at the University of Cantabria and interning at a nearby research institute, where she spoke only Spanish, a language she never learned growing up despite her Ecuadorian roots.
“At first I was very self-conscious, especially about my accent, so it took me a little while to feel comfortable with it,” she said. “But I improved a lot, especially when I was interning and had no choice but to speak Spanish all day every day. “
In her internship, Briones developed computer simulations of aeration tanks at wastewater treatment facilities to optimize their operation.
“It was really interesting and very, very difficult,” she admitted. “It’s all about fluid mechanics, which I didn’t know a lot about. And learning the technical aspect of it in a different language was really difficult. My mind was working in overdrive to understand it all.”
Apart from the classes and internship, Briones said her experience in Spain met all her expectations. “I was living in the Basque country, which is extremely rich in culture. The language, the people, the traditions are so unique, and everyone I met was excited to teach me about it.”
Back at URI, Briones became president of the University’s chapter of Theta Tau, a professional engineering fraternity, conducted research to measure the greenhouse gases emitted from wastewater treatment plants, served as an ambassador to foreign exchange students, and planned her next steps. She also was awarded the Dean Thomas Kim Scholarship and the George Geisser Scholarship.
She hopes to enroll in a master’s degree program in environmental engineering at the University of South Florida next fall and then enter the Peace Corps, where she will complete her degree.
“Maybe I’ll work for a government agency like the Environmental Protection Agency or a global institution like the U.S. Agency for International Development,” she said. “Or maybe I’ll establish my own organization that has to do with developing water technologies to help people get access to drinking water.
That’s my dream.”