AIS Stories

Graham Belton '06

"AIS was such a large part of the person I have become and the way in which I search for career opportunities in my field."
- Graham Belton '06
Growing up I had wanted to be a pilot and in an effort to pursue this passion I elected to take a few flying classes while still in high school. Five classes to be exact. I then proceeded to get motion sickness in two of the five classes, and so I decided this may not be the career path for me. After graduating from AIS, I joined the class of 2010 at John Hopkins University. Like every American student, I took a variety of general classes in my first semester, one, however, stood out, a general engineering class. Unlike most of my peers, by the spring of my freshman year, I had chosen my major—Civil Engineering.
Freshman year is exciting for many reasons; your newly found independence, meeting new people, and for some individuals, the adventure of relocating. But maybe most exciting for me was getting the opportunity to meet people through college groups who shared my passion for traveling and service. Luckily, just two short years before I started college, a group of students had created a chapter for the nonprofit organization Engineers Without Borders (EWB) at John Hopkins. This gave me the opportunity to do two things I love, traveling and engineering. My first trip with Engineers Without Borders was to South Africa in the summer of 2008 prior to my sophomore year. Inspired by the tangible difference we were making to people’s lives and in love with traveling, I continued to journey back to South Africa twice more before completing my Bachelor's degree.
There are a lucky few who graduate college knowing what they want to do and where they want to work, I, however, wasn’t one of them. I loved engineering but wasn’t ready to give up traveling quite yet. Growing up, my dad would relive his youth with stories about his time working with the Peace Corps in the 1970s. So shortly after accepting my degree I boarded a plane to Mali and joined the Peace Corps. This proved to be as exciting as it was challenging—the way all true adventures in life should be. My tour of duty was for two years, with only brief breaks to visit my sister in France and my parents back in the States. Between the engineering, socializing with peers, and working with the community, I had time to contemplate what I would be doing after my tour ended.

My time with the Peace Corps not only made me fall further in love with engineering but also left me questioning it, hungry for more depth to the subject. Consequently, once I was home I decided to apply for my Master’s, and in September of 2012 I joined Georgia Tech for Graduate School, this time for structural engineering. As if by fate, I became aware that Georgia Tech also had an Engineers Without Borders chapter—predictably I got involved. Their team was in the middle of a project based in Cameroon. The project started back in 2009 with the aim of bringing clean water to a community in the form of a communal pump and multiple taps, some public and some running into private homes. Unfortunately, the original well dug was a little too shallow. In the dry season (January) the well would dry out, leaving the community without clean water for over a month. A second well was dug but that too hit a few roadblocks. As you can imagine the local community was very invested in this project not only because of the length of it but also because of the beneficial impact it would make on all their lives. Therefore, many of the locals were learning how to fix the pump in case of breaking and had gained a true understanding of the pumps construction. Education is a vital part of any Engineers Without Borders project. For a project to be truly successful, you can’t just introduce new technology, you also have to educate the community on how to maintain that technology. By the time I arrived in 2013 the team was in the process of fixing the second well, and thankfully by the end of the trip, we were able to test it and confirm that the well had been successfully decontaminated. A major win for the community!

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to join the team in their trip to Cameroon the next year due to a new job. So in 2016 when I got the chance to return to Cameroon, I immediately jumped at the opportunity. The evolution that the community in Cameroon had gone through in my absence, a mere three short years, was stunning. Witnessing how the community had grown and was now fully utilizing the well was unbelievably gratifying. Something as simple as a well sounds elementary when talking in conjunction with society in the United States. But in Cameroon, this was vital groundbreaking work. We were providing a water source that was safe, year-round, to an entire community! Our 2016 trip’s main aim was to ‘finalize the engineering’ of the project.
In 2017 I returned one last time with the team to ‘close’ the project and finally turn all maintenance and ownership over to the community. This project had a lot of bumps in the road and ended up taking much longer than was planned, but ended up being my favorite trip. I learned the most engineering skills on this trip, and it was the most complicated of all the projects I was a part of. The real silver lining to this project was, that since we traveled to this community every year for nine years, the community had a real stake in the project, and consequently, they were better trained in how to fix problems as they occur in the future. Which is truly what the aim of these projects are, to make communities in developing countries self-sustainable. In the end, this whole project came together beautifully, from the pump and system itself, to how the community rallied around this project and was fully educated on the technology.
AIS was such a large part of the person I have become and the way in which I search for career opportunities in my field. Traveling the world and watching how my passion for engineering can truly transform someone’s life in a developing country, makes my job rewarding in a way it would have never been if I had taken a standard corporate job. I would encourage all young people to seek out ways they can improve the world through their passion and career. It’s important to note that although all of the opportunities I took were international, that there are plenty of opportunities to improve the communities that surround you right now. After all, as Mahatma Gandhi said, “the best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Editor's Note:
Graham is currently working on month-long rotations in Qatar and spending my month off, traveling. While at work in Qatar, Graham is on a jack-up rig in the Persian Gulf drilling for natural gas as a drilling fluids engineer and has been nicknamed 'Mud Engineer'.This past year he met up with AIS alum of '06 Marcus Morrissette in Munich during Octoberfest and finished up a solar-powered water pump project with Engineers Without Borders in Cameroon.

Originally published in the Spring 2017 Global Exchange.

Atlanta International School

A private, non-profit, international, IB World School for grades 3K-12,
featuring full and dual-immersion language programs.

2890 North Fulton Drive

Atlanta, Georgia 30305, USA