Fund for late professor lifts Engineers Without Borders into the black

by Kristin Czubkowski, UW-Madison Communications

Students interested in joining Engineers Without Borders can attend the organization’s next meeting at 6 p.m. Tuesday, March 11, in 1800 Engineering Hall.
Photo of Bosscher
Katie Simon had a lot to be nervous about in March 2007 when she became the president of the University of Wisconsin-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB), an organization that applies the knowledge of engineers to improving the quality of life for developing communities.
Nearly all of the former officers were graduating seniors soon to be leaving the campus, the organization was nearly $50,000 in debt to the university and the civil engineering professor who had been the lifeline for the organization since its 2004 inception had scaled back his hours helping the group due to illness.

She soon learned that the professor, Peter Bosscher (pictured left, photo by Jeff Miller), was suffering from kidney cancer, and would not be able to be as involved in the group as he had been for the past three years.

“Professor Bosscher was the group,” she says. “It was hard to get used to at first because whenever we had a problem, it was just like, we’ll ask Peter — he always knows the answer. Some of the members nicknamed him ‘The Magic Man’ because if anything happened, he would magically fix it.”

Even after losing his life from the cancer on Nov. 18, 2007, Bosscher’s dedication to the group remained evident: of the two funds for memorial visitors to donate to in lieu of flowers, one was to his church, of which he was a very active member, and the other was to EWB.

In a way, it was another case of Bosscher serving as The Magic Man for the group. In January 2008, the UW Foundation transferred $41,425 from the Peter J. Bosscher Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Fund into the EWB account. Approximately $9,000 was transferred from a different source at the same time, and for the first time in two years, Engineers Without Borders was out of debt.

“One of Peter’s biggest goals was to get us out of debt,” Simon says. “Just the fact that it happened and it was all because of him, I can just see him smiling down on this whole situation right now.”

Despite Bosscher’s dedication to the group, unforeseen adversity had resulted in the bulk of the group’s debt in the summer of 2005. In July 2004, the fledgling group had taken an assessment trip to the east African country of Rwanda and begun planning for a five to six kilometer pipeline to bring fresh water to a village of Muramba. A return trip to build the pipeline was set to take place the following year, which would cost more than $20,000 for airfare and travel expenses alone, and $35,000 for the pipeline materials.

The group typically applies for grants to fund its trips, says UW-Madison graduate and original EWB member Timothy Miller. For this trip, it found a local company to pay for the pipeline materials. A few weeks before the trip, however, the company told the group it would be unable to donate the funds as planned.

“We were all locked in for the trip,” he says. “We were all set to go, there were maybe two sets of five students going, and we had confirmed dates with our host in Rwanda. It was really a big blow to us to lose that funding, but Peter said he’d be able to get money in other places, so we decided to go and do the project anyway.”

The group returned in July 2005 after completing the majority of the pipeline and leaving local Rwandans in charge of finishing the project, and began to brainstorm ways to make up the debt. Miller says the group ran into trouble applying for grants, however, because most of the work had already been completed.

“It was kind of a problem because when you write grants, people want to know what you’re going to do with the money, not what you’ve done with it,” he says.

At the time, he adds, the debt did not affect the group as much because Bosscher took on much of the responsibility for negotiating funds from the university, which had covered the group’s Rwanda expenses. By 2007, though, Simon says EWB could no longer use its university account.

Work on the group’s three international projects was able to continue only because the group had applied for the first time for registered student organization status through the Associated Students of Madison, and began receiving funds through segregated fees.

The yearly application process for ASM funding meant that continued funding was not guaranteed, however, and the group continued to brainstorm ways to erase their debt, including selling copies of a documentary made from a Rwanda trip by two filmmakers who joined the students.

Now that Bosscher’s memorial fund pulled the group out of debt, the group has been able to focus on its international projects in Rwanda, El Salvador and Kenya, as well as domestic projects such as Hurricane Katrina relief. But grant-writing and other fundraising will continue to play a big role in keeping the group’s finances in order, Simon says.

Jeffrey Russell, chair of the civil engineering department at UW-Madison, adds the fund will be open to receiving donations indefinitely in order to honor Bosscher’s legacy. While Bosscher was heavily involved in the organization of the early group, he adds that the most important gift Bosscher gave to the group was inspiration.

“I think Engineers Without Borders embodied all the things he thought were important about preparing an educated citizen and engineer in this century,” he says. “Peter was able to take this, provide some leadership and guidance, but I think most importantly was to inspire students to get involved in this and make it better, make it beyond what it is.”

Those interested in donating to the Peter J. Bosscher Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Fund can do so through the UW Foundation or an online site devoted to the Bosscher fund.