Emily Barry was on a service-learning project in El Porvenir, a small, rural town in Honduras, when she learned how difficult it was for people there to get reliable, clean water.
She didn’t have much technical knowledge to offer the residents, but she did have a good idea.
“I started thinking about my friend who was studying civil engineering and how he would love to work on something like that,” said Barry, of Burke, Va., who was enrolled in Virginia Tech’s honors program at the time. “I had an idea that it would be really neat to get other students involved.”
When she returned to campus, Barry worked with officials in the honors program, the university’s Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships, and a Blacksburg, Va.-based nonprofit called Peacework on a program for students from various majors to partner with El Porvenir residents on community programs.
“This was a pretty unique thing, but Emily Barry is a pretty unique woman,” said Terry Papillon, who directs the honors program and is a professor of classics.
The students named their project Ut Prosim El Porvenir, preceding the town’s name with the university’s motto, Latin for “That I may serve.”
Though still an undergraduate, Barry led an honors class on international development, during which she and dozens of her fellow students discussed development theory with an eye toward applying their talents to the situation in El Porvenir.
After earning her bachelor’s in Spanish language and literature from the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences in 2009, Barry continued to lead the Ut Prosim El Porvenir project while enrolled in the master’s in international government and international affairs program within the College of Architecture and Urban Studies.
In July 2010, Barry and seven members of her class traveled to Honduras to put what they had learned into practice. The group had planned to go the previous summer, but political turmoil in the Central American nation led them to postpone the trip.
Barry and her classmates worked alongside residents on programs to address issues the community identified as priorities, including public health, empowering women, agriculture and nutrition, and water sanitation.
"The students were able to bring down their enthusiasm about the future of the community, along with knowledge and specific skills that they had learned at Virginia Tech,” said Heather Burke, Peacework’s director of international programs.
Several students are already planning to make return trips.
“We want to be in constant communication and bring the resources that we have to their disposal for community action within El Porvenir,” said Nicole Russell, a junior from Falls Church, Va., majoring in international studies, management, and Spanish.
In 2010, Barry won a Boren Fellowship, one of the nation’s most prestigious and generous awards for international study. In December 2010, she will travel to Sri Lanka to help reintegrate people displaced during the civil war between the country’s military and Tamil separatists.
Barry plans to stay eight months, study Sri Lankan languages, and work as an assistant to A.T. Ariyaratne, founder and president of Sri Lanka’s largest disaster relief and community development organization.
“I would like to have a public-service career where I work to connect community groups, nonprofits, and development programs with the resources they need to reach their goals,” said Barry, who plans to base her master’s thesis on her experience in Sri Lanka.
Barry’s parents have both worked as government analysts for various agencies. She said their example kindled her desire for an international career. Membership in Chi Delta Alpha, a community service sorority, helped develop her desire to help others, Barry said.
But she says she was truly inspired by an honors colloquium, “Inventing the Future through our Ut Prosim Tradition,” taught her freshman year by C. Bryan Cloyd, the John E. Peterson, Jr., professor of accounting.
Cloyd said Barry’s passion for service has led her to help others and has inspired many of her fellow students to do the same.
“I think what she’s doing exemplifies what a university education is about and what Ut Prosim is all about,” Cloyd said. “What Emily has done is use this opportunity -- the platform of the university, the resources of the university -- to become a much more complete person and to bring other people along on the journey with her.”
In an edited interview, Virginia Tech master's candidate Emily Barry discusses her interest in public service, her project in El Porvenir, Honduras, and how private donations made that project possible.
Emily Barry recruited fellow honors students to help the Honduran town of El Porvenir, and she also promotes service learning as a graduate assistant at Virginia Tech’s Center for Student Engagement and Community Partnerships. “I’m thrilled to have her here,” said the center’s director, Jim Dubinsky. “Emily has leadership and charisma that people pay attention to -- and follow.”