KINGSTON, R.I. – June 11, 2015 – This time next week, Maria Briones will be living in a small town in Panama, brainstorming about ways to bring clean water to rural villages.
Don’t expect her back any time soon. The University of Rhode Island graduate will spend more than two years in the Central American country as a volunteer in the Peace Corps’ Master’s International Program.
The program is a unique way for students to combine their interest in engineering or another field and public service. Participants spend one year in a graduate program at an American college, then travel abroad in the Peace Corps.
“I’m really excited,” says Briones, 24, who grew up in Cranston and Johnston. “I feel like I would be missing out in my life if I didn’t get a chance to do something like this. It will be really hard sometimes, but the good will outweigh the difficult moments.”
After graduating from URI in 2014 with a degree in civil engineering and Spanish, Briones headed to the University of South Florida in Tampa to pursue her master’s degree in civil engineering, with a focus on water resources. She just finished her first year, taking classes in everything from public health to hydrology.
She leaves for Panama June 16. For the first three months, she’ll live in Panama City with a host family to learn more about the country’s culture. Then she’ll settle in a small village, working on various projects, which might include building outdoor toilets, upgrading water lines and preserving waterways.
Briones is passionate about bringing clean water to rural communities worldwide. In the summer of 2011, she traveled to Guatemala with Engineers for a Sustainable World to help a village develop a sanitation system. The trip convinced her that clean water and proper sanitation are human rights.
At URI, the Pell Grant recipient excelled academically and received many scholarships: the Beatrice S. Demers Foreign Language Fellows Program; the Shawn P. McBride Memorial Scholarship; the Beatrice & Tom Garrick, Sr. Scholarship; the George & Virginia Geisser Civil Engineering Scholarship; the Jerry M. and Evelyn L. Rhoads Memorial Endowed Scholarship; and the Thomas J. Kim Endowed Engineering Scholarship, as well as other scholarships from the College of Engineering.
“There were times when I thought I wouldn’t come back, then a scholarship came through,” says Briones. “Scholarships made a huge difference.”
Briones also received a federally-funded science scholarship from the University of South Florida and will get a monthly stipend from the Peace Corps to cover her living expenses.
“I’m so excited about this next opportunity in my life,” Briones says. “I feel like I’m advancing the professional side of my career, but also fulfilling the personal things I want to do. It’s a life-changing experience.”
To prepare for her journey, she’s reading up on the country and talking to other Peace Corps volunteers who worked in Panama. Her Spanish, she says, is excellent, thanks to URI. (She studied and interned for a year in the Spanish cities of Santander and San Sebastian.)
“I think it’s important to appreciate what we have in this country and know how other people live in the world,” she says. “I believe in self-development, and one way to do that is to put myself outside of my comfort zone.”
After the Peace Corps, she’ll return to the University of South Florida for a semester to write her thesis – and, if all goes as planned, walk across the stage in 2017 with a master’s degree in hand.
Pictured above: Maria Briones, a 2014 graduate of the University of Rhode Island who will leave for Panama on June 16 as part of the Peace Corps’ Master’s International Program. Photo courtesy of Maria Briones.