‘Engineering found me’: Undergrad Rebecca Yoo and her passion for helping people in the developing world

Rebecca Yoo examines a water sample in Bolivia with classmates Melissa Meyer, left, and Kaitlyn Long. Yoo says the trip to Bolivia that was part of her Environmental Technology in the Developing World course brought her face to face with the kind of work she's always hoped to do — and prompted her to ask herself some tough questions about working less-developed parts of the world. (Photo: Lorenzo Tolentino)

By Laura Mast

Birthday cake, balloons, a live band or two, and all your friends. Pretty much a standard birthday party.

Rebecca Yoo wanted something more for her 21st birthday last year.

Yoo threw the big party. She invited all her friends. But she didn’t want gifts.

Instead, she asked them to help provide clean water for 21 people through an organization called charity: water. It was just the sort of thing Yoo’s friends might have expected, given her passion for helping people in less developed countries.

“I feel so blessed to be alive for 21 years and have everything that I need, but I wanted to acknowledge people [who don’t have that but] want that just like I do. I really enjoyed doing it without guilting people into donating, but having it be a celebration.”

Civil engineering undergraduate Rebecca Yoo eschewed gifts for her 21st birthday and instead threw a party and asked her friends to donate money to an organization that provides clean water to people who don't have it. She wanted to provide water for 21 people. This photo is from her 20th birthday, when she did something similar, asking for donations along Tech Walkway. (Photo: Rebecca Yoo)

Yoo knew long before she arrived at the School of Civil and Environmental Engineering that she was interested in international development, but having been born into a family of liberal arts majors, she wasn’t sure how engineering could play a role. After hearing more about the field at a seminar for undecided engineers, however, she knew she’d found her niche.

“Since that lecture, I began to realize what a great role civil and environmental engineering could play in bringing development to places that need it,” Yoo said.

“I feel like engineering found me.”

She said engineering offers an opportunity to make a more significant — and long-lasting — impact for people living in developing countries.

“[Aid workers] can give help while they’re there, but only while they’re there. Engineers can build something or implement something that can last beyond themselves.”

Yoo said she’s also learned through her travels that just engineering a solution isn’t always enough; it’s often as much about working with the local community to ensure that the fix she could offer is something the community wants and needs.

“I think and study about these kinds of places, populations that [don’t have clean water or access to sanitation], but I had never ever experienced it face-to-face like I did in Bolivia,” Yoo said, referring to a spring break research trip in March with the Environmental Technology in the Developing World course.

“More than the educational experience, I think I grew so much personally during that trip,” she said.

“I felt so awakened. I asked myself, looking at these kinds of conditions, ‘Rebecca do you think you can live here in the future? Do you think you can tackle the cultural and social differences, like how you’re going to be seen when you do work in a foreign country?’ It really hit home for me.”

It also reminded her she has much more to learn before she’s ready to get to work in communities without clean water and basic sanitation, Yoo said.

“I realize so many different ways that I need to mature, not just as an engineer but as a person, so many things that I need to consider before I become an engineer who works in that field.”