Who are the volunteers behind the projects?
Meet Mira Armstrong, field engineer by day, and volunteer with EWB-NY. Mira currently lives in Manhattan with her cat.
Mira, what's your day job?
I work as a field engineer for Skanska USA Civil at the Moynihan Station Project. I’m on the construction site every day, planning and managing operations. Our project is turning the old Farley Post Office into a Penn Station West access. My main focus is on the skylights at the future train hall, and all the temporary structures like cranes and heavy duty scaffolding that go into erecting these new glass ceilings.
What's your role in EWB?
I am the Project Lead for the Rubaya, Rwanda project. I’ve had this role for two years now, since the project began back when the chapter was choosing a new community to support.
What’s got you started in EWB?
When I was in high school, I went on a community service trip to Nicaragua, to figure out what ways I could help people. The purpose of that trip was building a school but it was pretty obvious from the get go that a bunch of American high school students were not especially helpful beyond paying our homestay families to be there. One night we were returning to our homestays from site, and heavy rains washed out the uneven dirt roads connecting the communities, stopping all activity for hours. It was in that moment I decided that being a civil engineer was one way I could build useful skills to help people in developing countries. From there I applied to colleges with engineering and development in mind, went to Columbia University and joined the EWB student chapter there, and the rest is history.
What’s your favorite thing about EWB?
My favorite thing about EWB is the people. As a chapter, it’s really important for us to attract and retain a diverse pool of talented volunteers because without a strong team, there are no projects or committees. I’m consistently impressed by our volunteers’ range of backgrounds and willingness to put in hard work. It’s so interesting to meet other people who would also rather spend their free time working on engineering development projects. I greatly enjoy the time I get to spend with other volunteers both inside and outside of meetings.
What’s the biggest challenge with EWB?
The biggest challenge is working through the peaks and valleys of EWB projects. International development work is hard, and the halting nature of projects can be discouraging, especially when relations with EWB and the community are not smooth. There have been times I’ve felt really burned out. My least favorite part of EWB is having to say “no” to a community’s request for help. I would love to wave a magic wand and have everyone’s development dreams come true, but with limited resources we have to make tough decisions on what is actually important and feasible.
How do you balance your time between your day job and volunteering with EWB?
Delegate, delegate, delegate! It can be really tempting to take on a lot of the project’s work myself. I’ve learned that it’s not helpful to the project, the team, or myself to try and do so much alone. Day job work always has to come first, so I carve out specific time slots on evenings or weekends to do EWB.
How has EWB impacted your life?
EWB has defined my engineering experience in my undergraduate education and my early professional life. The reason I work for a general contractor in construction is because a mentor on one of my college EWB trips advised me that it would be a good fit career, based on how she saw me run the jobsite overseas.
What's next for you?
Within the next year, I plan to step down as Project Lead and let someone else take the responsibility. I’ll continue to be involved with the program, of course. It’s important to keep the energy in leadership fresh and I intend to stay involved with engineering and development work generally for the foreseeable future.
What would you say to people who want to get involved?
Do it! EWB is as a rewarding experience as the amount of energy you put into it. Come to meetings, take on responsibilities, and seize the opportunity to learn, grow, and make a positive difference!