Reflections on Panama: A VESL Experience

by Samantha Schafer ’17 ChE, president, Engineers Without Borders

Samantha Schafer ’17 ChE and Father Wally
Samantha Schafer ’17 ChE and Father Wally

Over my final winter break, I had the opportunity to lead 10 Villanova Engineering students on a service trip. We, along with two alumni advisors, journeyed to Wacuco, Panama, a village three hours southeast of Panama City, near the border of Colombia. What began in 1991 as a calling for one Villanovan, Chris McCartin ’91 CE, an advisor on our trip, has evolved into a biannual service trip for engineering students whose mission is to help Father Wally, or Padre Pablo as he is known in Panama, better the community which he has called home for almost 30 years.

This trip in January was my second to Panama. Over fall break in 2014, I traveled with a group that surveyed land for bridges and chapel sites. This year, my group was challenged with refurbishing a 120,000 gallon water storage tank in neighboring Agua Fria, Panama. The massive storage tank had been unable to hold water for 20 years despite Father Wally's repeated attempts to patch its cracks. To put 120,000 gallons of water into perspective, this tank is 43 ft. in diameter by 14 ft. high. Following four months of research and preparation, my group and I arrived in Panama prepared to fix the 20-year-old problem.

Villanovans in Panama
Villanovans in Panama

Our original plan for this project was to re-line the exterior of the inoperable tank, but when our initial inspection revealed large cracks on the inside of the tank, some up to twelve ft. tall, we knew the only way to get to the root of the problem was to re-line the interior. For the next 12 days, we chiseled out all of the old material previously used to repair the tank, patched the large cracks on the wall and floor, and then, finally, coated the entire tank with a sealant. The material used, Xypex, is said to not only prevent water from getting through the cracks, but over time, to seep further into the tank's walls making the tank itself stronger. Two weeks after our visit they began filling the tank with water and it has yet to leak. I’m confident in our solution, the integrity of our labor, and the tank's soundness.


While most of my time in Panama has been spent on projects, these trips are about more than just the satisfying work. My favorite part remains immersing myself in the culture and meeting the beautiful people of Panama. I am fortunate to speak Spanish conversationally and therefore was able to talk to the locals and learn about their lives and the positive impact of our work. Their gratitude was humbling and each individual is such an inspiration to me. From visiting an indigenous village, to singing with the workers' children, it was evident that learning about the people and their culture was a priority for us all. While not everyone on the trip could communicate in Spanish, we were all able to learn so much more about the generous, caring and hard-working spirit that is the Panamanian culture than we could ever read in any textbook, even if at times the communication resembled a large game of charades!

I am so pleased that Villanova Engineering Service Learning Director Jordan Ermilio ’98 ME, ’06 MSWREE and Assistant Professor James O'Brien ’71 CE, ’77 MSME continue to organize these trips and had the confidence in me to lead our team. Much of our success was aided by our advisors, McCartin and Will Angiolillo ’12 CE, ’13 MSCE, and everyone from Aqua America and Xypex who provided invaluable assistance with research and donated materials. Additionally, the talented engineering students with whom I traveled (Michael Baudinet ’17 CE, Hailey Brockett ’18 CE, Ray Dengler ’17 ME, Abbel Garcia ’17 ME, Sarah Godschall ’18 CE, Brennan Howley ’17 ME, Gillian Kennedy ’18 CE, Julianna Villa ’18 CE, and Christopher White ’17 ME) made me a better leader with their patience, persistence and diligence. Lastly, I cannot thank Father Wally enough for continuing to open up his home and his heart to all of us at Villanova. I am so grateful for his example of compassion and service and will cherish our dear friendship forever.

As graduation approaches and I reflect on my years at Villanova, I realize my time in Panama has yielded some of my favorite memories. My service there has made me not only a better student of engineering, but of life. I encourage every student to take advantage of at least one of the many service trips offered through our great University, reap the rewards, and do what we Villanovans do best: Ignite Change!