Destination: Developing World

Destination: Developing World

In densely packed settlements on the fringes of Cape Town, South Africa, over a million people live in tin shacks connected by dirt paths. Most residents have no water, electricity, or sanitation in their homes. Illnesses such as tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are common. Although more than half of the settlements’ residents are employed, the vast majority experience extreme poverty and don’t have enough food from day to day.

These sprawling settlements represent some of the most visible scars from nearly four brutal decades of apartheid. They also are the focal points for the newest project center within WPI’s far-ranging Global Perspective Program, part of the Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division (IGSD). The first team of students will travel to Cape Town this fall.

In a place where 30 people often share one toilet, homes flood during heavy rains, and people are frequently injured or killed by the few existing hazardous household electrical connections, the first Cape Town IQPs will focus on such practical needs as an environmental community center recreation fields, and other public facilities. Students will document transportation hazards for settlement residents and help make transportation safer and more efficient. They will also create options for sanitary and prosperous sidewalk meat markets, a critical livelihood for many in the area.

Scott Jiusto, director of the Cape Town Project Center and an assistant professor in IGSD, hammered out details of these and other IQPs when he traveled to Cape Town in May to meet with local project coordinator Basil Tommy of the City of Cape Town Planning Department. Tommy introduced Jiusto to those working on housing, environment, community development, and other aspects of sustainable development in Cape Town, including city officials, project developers, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and academics.

“I met many dedicated people working to address daunting challenges with an optimism that inspires me,” Jiusto says. “Their circumstances are sobering, and they are keenly interested in taking the next practical steps.”


Pierre de Galbert ’02 was convinced that his lesson plan—the very first one he put together—was flawless.

Teaching math and computer skills to students in Namibia, the WPI alum wanted to begin the year with an easy task—he would show his class how to make a folder on their respective computers to save their work for the upcoming year. Unfortunately, de Galbert’s well-thought-out plan hit a snag when he saw his students waving the computer mouses in the air.

“Most of them had never seen a computer before,” he says, reflecting on the experience. “I realized my lessons plans were a bit ambitious.”

De Galbert returned to Worcester this spring to chat with students traveling to Cape Town, the site of WPI’s newest project center. He spoke about his experiences abroad, which include two years in Namibia and one year in Rwanda. He now lives and works in Niger, having earned this spring a master’s degree in international education policy from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.

While telling the WPI project teams about the people, history, and culture of South Africa, de Galbert also encouraged students to make the most of their time in Cape Town. “The more you put yourself out there, the more you’re going to get back,” he advised.

De Galbert grew up in France and came to the United States to attend WPI after looking for a school with a strong computer science program and a project-based approach to learning. As a CS major, he took advantage of WPI’s Global Perspective Program, and traveled to Denmark and California for his IQP and MQP, respectively. De Galbert says he was bitten by the travel bug and after graduation, he spent two months in Asia before moving to Namibia for two years.

“Living and working abroad pushes you out of your comfort zones,” he says, “and that’s a good thing.”

Now in Niger, working with the Ministry of Education to improve school management tools, de Galbert encourages all WPI students to take advantage of the university’s global travel opportunities. “Maybe this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for you,” he told the students. “Maybe it’s the start of a new life, like it was for me.”


The settlements’ many development needs, coupled with student interest, convinced IGSD dean Rick Vaz that the new Cape Town Project Center should open. “We have seen increasing student interest for projects in the developing world,” says Vaz, “and for projects making a difference, whether in the environment, energy, water, public health, or quality of life generally.”

WPI project centers in Bangkok and Namibia—established in 1988 and 2002, respectively—have seen steady increases in student applications, notes Vaz. In 2003, 14 percent of students applying for an off-campus IQP selected a site in the developing world as their top choice. By 2006, that number had jumped to over 30 percent.

In addition to students’ eagerness to help in developing countries, WPI enjoys strong ties with African nations, thanks to the work of Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld, director of academic programs and planning in IGSD, and her husband, management professor Arthur Gerstenfeld. The two have long
promoted business relationships between WPI and Africa, and they played a central role in establishing the Namibia Project Center, for which Gerstenfeld serves as co-director.

With grants from the U.S. Department of Education, the Gerstenfelds launched the annual WPI U.S.-Africa Business Conference in 2004. Most recently, they introduced their IGSD colleagues to government officials, educators, and others in South Africa’s legislative capital of Cape Town.

“South Africa’s economic health is key to the development of Africa’s southern cone,” says Vernon-Gerstenfeld, who laid the groundwork for the Cape Town Project Center. This region includes South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Botswana, for which “South Africa is a huge economic engine. For example, Namibia and Zimbabwe rely heavily on South Africa for electricity and other services.”

“No other university has what we have started in Africa,” says Gerstenfeld, who reports that WPI will receive a twoyear, $200,000 Department of Education grant to build and expand WPI programs in Africa.

IGSD announced the Cape Town Project Center in 2006, noting that IQPs would focus on energy resources, water conservation, and the provision of housing, health care, and other issues of sustainability to underdeveloped areas. “The student response was overwhelming,” says Vaz. Fifty applications were submitted for 24 spots.

The students who will do their IQPs in Cape Town major in a wide variety of subjects, notes Natalie Mello, director of global operations in IGSD—everything from Mechanical Engineering to Interactive Media & Game Development, Actuarial Math to Fire Protection. “In the spirit of the IQP,
each student will delve into disciplines divergent of their majors,” says Mello. “And they will, of course, work in teams.”

Adds Jiusto, “I feel we have a lot to learn and to gain from working with the resourceful and creative people of Cape Town, and they are excited about the students’ arrival. I think WPI can play a helpful role there.”

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Last modified: September 26, 2014 15:59:29