Recent Alum Spends Nearly Four Years Working in Africa

Owen Fitzgerald enjoys a moment of repose, and music, in Mali.

If Owen Fitzgerald isn’t helping people, he isn’t happy. 

His desire to help people bloomed at NJIT when, during his senior year, he was named president of Engineers Without Borders. EWB, a student humanitarian group, istalled  bio-sand filters in a village in Haiti so that the villagers could have clean drinking water. He even travelled to Haiti twice to help the villagers build and install the bio-filters.

That was a seminal experience for Owen, who graduated in 2008 as the Outstanding Senior in the Newark College of Engineering.  That year, he was also named the Outstanding Senior in  the Department of Engineering Technology, where he majored in Construction Engineering Technology. Having such credentials, at the time of his graduation he was offered a top job from a major engineering firm. He turned it down. Instead, he joined the Peace Corps.

He was stationed in Mali, West Africa, for more than two years, time he spent helping a village design and build a deep-water well and a literacy center. He lived in a mud hut and drank and ate and danced with the villagers, so much so that he felt like he was their adopted son. It was a life-changing experience for him.

When his time in the Peace Corps was up, he returned to the states and was considering getting a job in New Jersey. But a month later, he received a call from Conti Construction, a company he had worked for part-time while a student. Conti offered him a job he couldn’t refuse: To return to Africa, to Ghana, and work on a project aimed at overhauling the capital city’s sanitary sewer, storm drainage and waste management infrastructure. Given his affection for Africa, he accepted the offer.

In this interview, Owen talks about his work in Ghana, as well as the work he did in Mali and in Haiti.  Altogether, he lived and worked in Africa for nearly four years, a time that humbled him and made him appreciate the simple pleasures of life. The villagers he lived among, he says, had very little materially. But spiritually, they were the happiest and warmest people he ever met. That changed his life, as he explains below.

What got you started helping people in third world countries?

My work in developing countries started while I was still a student at NJIT. We had just started the college’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), which is a group that gives students an opportunity to work on engineering projects in developing nations. Our first project was to help bring clean drinking water to the inhabitants of Milot, Haiti. To do this, we chose to implement a sustainable technology known as the household bio- sand filter.

For our first trip to Haiti, I was (thankfully) selected to be part of the team to perform the initial assessment and begin developing relationships with local partners. Some EWB members preferred to stay in NJ to serve as engineering support, while I was just anxious to get there, on the ground, and get my hands dirty.

After you graduated, you joined the Peace Corps. You even turned down a good job. Why?

Upon graduation, I decided I’d continue to pursue my passion for work in developing countries. I had a great job offer at a great company, but told them that this was just something I needed to do. With that, I submitted an application to Peace Corps, and then booked myself a ticket back to Haiti (this time going by myself) to work with some other organizations doing great work there. About a month later, while I was still in Haiti, I heard back from Peace Corps, which ultimately led to me accepting an offer to volunteer in Mali, West Africa.

Where were you placed and what work did you do?

From 2009-2011, I served as a water and sanitation volunteer in the southern portion of Mali. While my primary objective was the construction of a community deep well, we were able to accomplish that and a lot more because of how motivated the villagers were (it doesn’t always work out this way!). Together, we dug a 60ft. deep well by hand (6ft. diameter); cast concrete blocks one-by-one with a mold to line the entire well and prevent it from caving in; planted 500 Moringa trees (also known as the “Miracle Tree” because of the nutrients it provides); constructed an outpatient waiting area and incinerator for medical waste at the local medical clinic; constructed a brand new Literacy Center, which became the first non-mud structure in the village (there were only four literate people in the village); sponsored the literacy teachers to participate in training workshops; dug 200 new latrines, and used concrete slabs to constructed 50 improved pit latrines We also hand-painted a 200-square foot world map on the local public school and much more. And all of this happened without machines, electricity, running water, or phone access.    

Did you enjoy your time in Mali?

The word “enjoy” cannot even slightly capture how I appreciate my 2+ years in Mali. Before I joined Peace Corps, returned volunteers used to tell me how their experiences were “life changing,” but I didn’t pay much attention to it, thinking that everyone’s experience is different. I was right in that everyone’s experience is different, but my time spent in Mali was nothing short of life changing. I have been humbled to a point I did not know was possible, and I have learned to appreciate every single thing I have in America, down to a single square sheet of toilet paper. The love, the warmth, the laughter, and the humility of the village people who adopted me as their own; it is something that has made me appreciate life in a beautifully new way.

After your Peace Corps time was up what did you do?

When I got back, I just wanted to chill out, spend time with loved ones, and eat good food. Not having cell reception for a couple of years puts a damper on keeping in touch with people back home, so they were my first priority.

Shortly after returning, I received a phone call from Conti (NJ construction /engineering firm), the same company I was working for just before leaving for Haiti. They asked me to meet at their headquarters and give a presentation to some of the higher-ups about my experience in Mali. This confused me at first, being that Conti does huge infrastructure jobs with massive equipment mostly in the U.S., and thinking that I was just a little volunteer at the base of the Sahara Desert doing small projects with my hands. It turned out that they were about to start work in Ghana, West Africa, and were interested to hear about my experiences, the culture, language learning, etc. At the conclusion of my presentation, they ask me to be part of the team to go and commence Conti’s new venture in Ghana. I gratefully accepted.  

What project did you work on in Ghana?

For my first year and a half in Ghana, my efforts were devoted to a project aimed at completely overhauling the capital’s sanitary sewer, storm drainage and waste management infrastructure. In the beginning, I was heavily involved in community relations, as we knew that the project’s success depended on it. Having the engineering background and the sociocultural experience from my time in Mali, I was tasked with being the face of Conti to all of the chiefs, elders, fetish priests, and communities, bridging the gap between engineering and the people of Ghana. There were days there that I would be taking part in rituals including animal sacrifices, pouring libations, and evoking spirits, and I would think to myself: “This is my job!”

You also did a second major project in Ghana, right?

In the latter part of my second year there, I was sent to Kumasi, Ghana, to help start up yet another project also involving infrastructure development, but this time for a housing development. In addition to my project engineering role, I again had the pleasure of laying the groundwork for our relationships with the communities in that area.

What benefits accrue to a young person who travels and works in Africa or other developing countries?

The benefits of living, working, and/or traveling to developing nations are many. There will always be serious personal growth that occurs, strengthening of character, learning compassion, and coming to the realization that most of the world is not as fortunate as we are; and then getting that fire in your bones to want to make a difference. 

You have just returned to America with Conti. What are you working on now and what are your plans?

A few weeks ago, I made my move back to the motherland. I’ve now spent about four years of my life overseas, and so it’s time to spend some time back home; once more, family is the priority. 

In addition, I do have some personal and professional goals that I’d like to pursue. I am very grateful for the experience I have gained with Conti, and I am excited to have just started on the I-295/I-76/Route 42 Interchange project, located in Camden County. It is a $153 million job with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, and I am looking forward to being on the team to execute these much-needed works.

Aside from this, earning a master’s degree has always been a personal goal of mine. Now that I am back on American soil, the research will soon begin on schools and programs, and I will hope to resume my studies within the next couple of years. Whatever it is I will do and wherever I will go, I don’t know, but I am looking forward to it.   

Did your NJIT education help you do your work in Mali and Ghana? Looking back, did NJIT give you opportunities to do this kind of work?

Yes, absolutely, and I’m not just saying that because this is an interview for NJIT. The scholarships I received from the Albert Dorman Honors College and other generous donors made it possible for me to focus on school without accruing serious debt; which then gave me the freedom to pursue these volunteering opportunities I was so passionate about. Moreover, I had some really great teachers and mentors who took me under their wings, guiding me, offering their wisdom, and helping me hone in on what was truly most important to me. And for all of this, I am tremendously grateful.

By Robert Florida