Penn State students address water needs in developing countries

December 17, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- According to Mike Henry, when visiting a developing country, the fastest way to cross cultural barriers and make friends is to wield a pickaxe. And that’s exactly what he plans to do later this month when he arrives in Ghana.

That doesn’t sound like a very friendly gesture until you realize that the Schreyer Scholar will be working alongside other students and local community members to give the village access to clean water. While the Penn State students typically dig trenches for water pipes on these service trips, in Ghana they’ll be constructing a community building especially designed to collect rainwater.

“You’re terrible at the work because they’re used to manual labor and you’re not,” said Mike, a senior majoring in immunology and infectious disease in the College of Agricultural Sciences. “But it’s a cool bonding and cultural experience with people from such a different background, all sweating and getting dirty. Working for the same goal makes you become friends fast.”

Digging wells and giving communities in developing countries access to clean water is the heart of Global Water Brigades, one of seven Penn State chapters of the national, student-run Global Brigades organization. The student brigades work in concert with an international non-governmental organization and local communities to create sustainable solutions in everything from architecture and microfinance to public health and water.


Last year, 50 members of the Penn State Global Water Brigades took service trips to remote communities in Honduras and Ghana. The club is visiting different communities in those countries this academic year, and Mike hopes to again have at least 25 students sign up for each trip. He’ll be flying to Ghana with the other students on the day after Christmas, spending 10 days building a rainwater harvesting system and educating the community members on how to use and maintain it along with how to practice good hygiene. While the transportation, lodging and supplies for the service trips are expensive – the Ghana trip costs around $2,600 per person – the students fundraise all semester to help lower the cost.

Mike says the best part of the trip will be seeing the other students catch his vision for providing clean water.

“I’ll be talking to people, ‘Do you see why we’re here and what we’re trying to do?’” he said. “This is different than donating to food aid because when that money dries up, the food dries up and that’s the end of it. We’re actually working with these communities to make change in the long run.”

Mike’s passion for the water crisis was born on a spring break trip during his freshman year to Honduras with the Penn State chapter of Global Medical Brigades.

“I was a translator, so I worked in triage and saw that almost everyone coming in was reporting stomach illnesses,” he said. “Then you get to talking and realize that the cause of that is the fact that people don’t have clean water.”

That summer, Mike and his friend Anthony Ricco founded the Penn State chapter of Global Water Brigades, which at the time was the third brigades program established at Penn State. They spent that first year raising awareness of Global Water Brigades and the worldwide water issues, and organizing and hosting fundraising events and documentary screenings. It paid off when 15 students signed up for their first service trip to Honduras over spring break 2011.

And over the course of that week, Mike and Anthony discovered that service trips are not just about damming streams and creating the infrastructure for a water purification system, or even teaching children and community members how to use and maintain it.

“One of the beautiful things about Brigades is that in a week you can start to question all your previous thoughts of what you would be doing,” said Anthony, a 2012 graduate of Penn State’s Eberly College of Science, who is now a student at Jefferson Medical College. “That’s what Mike and I did – we questioned. We both wanted to go to med school before, and we’re both going to go, but now we’re going to be trying to work on global and urban health issues. And it’s awesome because that effect has happened to maybe 25 percent of our club – they’ve changed their majors or said they were interested in doing this as a full-time career.”

Mike agreed. “Ultimately, it’s cool if we can make a difference in the community, but if you can persuade someone to follow this path in their life to work for communities, it’s a much bigger difference than what you can do in one week in Honduras.”

He says his decision to earn the brand-new global health minor in the College of Health and Human Development was “definitely a Brigades-inspired thing,” and he now hopes to work for an international health agency in the future.

“I get bored easily, so that’s the only thing I came to the conclusion that I couldn’t get too bored with,” he said with a laugh.

Since Global Water Brigades was started at Penn State, four other brigades chapters have been founded. The campus now offers Global Architecture, Business, Environmental, Human Rights, Medical, Public Health and Water Brigades, which are open to students in all majors. Some 500 students are involved across the various chapters, giving Penn State the honor of having the largest brigades out of more than 200 universities.

And this year, Mike is focusing his efforts on uniting the different chapters together. He’s handed off the position of president of Global Water Brigades to a new leader, and is now the overall campus chairman of all the Penn State brigades. While the clubs still meet individually, they now team up for things like documentary screenings and guest speakers.

“At the end of the day, the problems we’re trying to confront are not problems water can solve by itself – we need everyone, so we need to foster that kind of environment,” Anthony explained.

Although Anthony has graduated and is no longer involved, he’s happy with the way he left the club. “We’re 500 percent happy at how it turned out,” he said. “We’re pretty proud of it.”

For Mike, there’s a bit more in store: With the Global Water Brigades heading to Ghana over winter break, he’s planning on a few more days of manual labor, making friends and changing lives before he graduates.



  • Mike Henry, co-founder of Penn State's Global Water Brigades, walked back from teaching schoolchildren in a remote mountain Honduran village about the water cycle and water conservation in March.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated January 10, 2014