Baylor Student Engineers Connect Mayan Village With Internet World
by Judy Long
The 700 inhabitants of Christo-Rey in northwest Belize live in houses made of sticks, mud and palm leaves. Most residents of the remote Mayan village make their living from the earth, raising primarily sugar cane.
It's the last place on earth you would expect to find an Internet café.
However, through the efforts of three Baylor University students, an engineering professor and a grant from Baylor Horizons, a new program that integrates education and service, Christo-Rey is now connected to the rest of the world through a computer lab as sophisticated as any you'll find in Belize.
The inspiration for the project began with Sara Eisenbarth, a Baylor math major who spent the spring semester in Christo-Rey as a teaching intern. Helping the village go online was like giving them a window to the world, she said.
"Students in Belize have the option of dropping out of school at age 14, and some of my students were approaching that age," Eisenbarth said. "I had hoped to find ways to encourage them to set goals for themselves and stay in school."
After witnessing daily the villagers' serious quest for knowledge and interaction beyond their borders, the Waco junior passed on that information to someone who could help -- Baylor engineering professor Steven Eisenbarth, who just happened to be her father.
A member of Baylor engineering faculty since 1980, Dr. Eisenbarth has long been concerned about the widening gap between technological progress in the third and first worlds. Third world countries, he said, need missionaries now more than ever who can help the Kingdom of God by exercising their technical vocation.
"This is an aspect of Christian response to other people in the world," he said. "If we help their economies, the church will also thrive."
To fund the Christo-Rey mission, Dr. Eisenbarth and Todd Lake, Baylor's dean of university ministries, first enlisted the help of two Waco Rotary Clubs, who agreed to underwrite the cost of the computers.
Dr. Eisenbarth then looked to Baylor Horizons, a comprehensive three-year project funded by a $2 million grant from Lilly Endowment Inc. The Baylor Horizons project unites two university divisions -- Academic Affairs and Student Life -- to help Baylor students integrate their faith with their field of study, thus developing a sense of "vocation" -- as God's calling to a life of service.
Dr. Eisenbarth and five of his colleagues in the department of engineering were awarded a $7,500 grant from Baylor Horizons for the "Integration of Christian Faith and Engineering Practice." The department had planned to fund several initiatives, including mission opportunities abroad like in Belize that combined students' service and education.
Baylor electrical engineering students Sara Hahn, a junior from Bernalillo, N.M., and Walt Ford, a sophomore from Houston, flew with the Eisenbarths to Central America in August to install the computer lab. The server and three workstations, located in the village school, put Christo-Rey on the technological cutting edge in Belize. The lab is used by the children in the village school during the day, and in the evenings, villagers can rent internet time for a modest fee.
Although Christo-Rey is still primitive in its structures, Dr. Eisenbarth said the people are not socially primitive. "They are very smart people, and they value education," he said.
Sara Eisenbarth believes the new computer lab will help students see greater opportunities for their careers, as well as bring added economic benefit and employment to the town. After installing the lab, the team trained several young men from the village to maintain the computers. A 19-year-old villager already trained at a technical school in Mexico will be primarily responsible for the maintenance, as well as the installation of five more computers arriving this month.
The Christo-Rey experience has been a fulfilling one for the villagers, who are connected with the rest of the world in ways they never dreamed possible, and for Baylor students as they serve others through their vocation. Dr. Eisenbarth hopes to find more opportunities to integrate service and learning and to make a conscious effort to bring less developed countries into the world marketplace.
"If we don't help these countries catch up technologically, we will begin seeing extensive and severe economic hardship there," he said. "American educators and technologically trained people have an ethical responsibility to help them."