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Student news - Working for the world: Tanzania trip shapes engineer's career goals

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The electrical contractor Paul Pebler supervised at the largest hospital in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, lives in a cinder block home three miles from the hospital. To get to his home, Pebler walked across a jet-black sewage stream to a slum strewn with garbage. Despite the setting, what Pebler remembers most about that day was the warm welcome he received from the contractor's family, which included fried dough and long conversation.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison civil engineering and construction management student says the contractor and others he met while interning in Tanzania during summer 2008 opened his eyes to an entirely different way of life. “It was amazing to see people living like that,” he says. “The big thing I learned was empathy.”

His intimate look at life in Tanzania came while working for the Abbott Fund, the charitable arm of Abbott Laboratories, to convert the maternity ward of Muhimbili National Hospital into an emergency room. The project is part of Abbott’s plan to complete 23 clinics in Tanzania—one of its largest international projects.

Pebler never expected to go to Tanzania, but after spending fall 2007 studying abroad in Hong Kong, he had developed the itch for international travel. “Hong Kong was a good start. It was different, but very Western for an Asian country,” he says.

Prior to Hong Kong, the Rice Lake, Wisconsin, native had never traveled abroad. He was interested in Asian culture after befriending a Japanese exchange student in high school, and when he learned about the opportunity to study at University of Hong Kong, he knew it was exactly what he was looking for.

While in Hong Kong Pebler gained confidence in himself as a traveler, venturing into rural China and sampling local foods such as chicken feet and fried scorpion. “I became more adventurous in food,” he says. “A lot of times I didn’t know what I was eating.”

After returning to Madison, he was interested in traveling again and applied to the Abbott position. The self-reliance he practiced in Hong Kong became crucial in Tanzania, where he had to find his own housing. He settled into a simple house with German non-governmental organization interns. Bare light bulbs hung from the ceiling and they didn’t have a shower or television, but Pebler found the minimalist lifestyle calming.

“We have a very fast pace in America, and it was nice to slow down,” he says. Pebler found the relaxed pace of living in Tanzania carried over to the workplace. On slow days, the workers enjoyed sitting and teaching Pebler Swahili for most of the afternoon. Finding a contractor at all is difficult, he says, because there are no phone books and the Internet is not widely available. It was a challenge to find trustworthy and qualified people to work on the hospital, and Pebler learned to find reputable people by word of mouth.

Back in Madison, Pebler appreciates his broadened perspective and he wants to give back to places like Dar es Salaam by working with the Peace Corps or another international aid agency after he graduates in May 2010. He would like to teach people how to start their own businesses or learn practical trades to make a living.

“Before the trip, I wanted a career that would benefit me, just me. My interests have changed now and I want to do something proactive,” he says. “The career I’m going to choose will be based on helping people. It would be wrong for me after seeing what I saw to come back and just live comfortably.”

“Living in Tanzania changed my life,” he says.