Two alumni. Two different volunteer missions. One similar lesson: The best leaders are often born out of life's uncertainties.

By David Thome | Achievements, Alumni

Sometimes the path you choose leads directly to your intended destination. Sometimes, however, it doesn’t, and as two Prairie graduates discovered, that can be a very good thing.

As college students, Ben Gelhaus ’12 and Elissa Mueller ’08 both spent time abroad working on water quality initiatives they thought would help them develop engineering skills. In Ben’s case, though, engineering took a back seat — at least for a while — to communication skills. In Elissa’s case, water itself took a back seat while she and other students redirected their focus to a more urgent, land-bound concern.

“When you’re trying to solve real-world problems, it’s more important to have the people skills to ask the right questions than just being a number-crunching guru,” Ben told Inventing Tomorrow, the University of Minnesota College of Science and Engineering’s magazine. “Understanding your problem is key before you try to solve it.”

The statement sums up Elissa’s experience as well. “You go to a place and experience life the way they experience it and help them develop a project that is theirs,” she told Prairie earlier this spring. “If you bring people a project, they’ll be polite and accept whatever you’re offering even if it’s something they don’t need. But, if you ask, ‘What do you need?’ you start a conversation.” Elissa and Ben did, ultimately, develop engineering skills during their respective excursions, but they also learned how to think on their feet, adapt to the situation at hand and assume leadership roles they hadn’t quite anticipated.

Someone to Take Charge

A chemical engineering major, Ben travelled to Illula, Tanzania, a city of 28,000, with a group of University of Minnesota students and instructors during winter break in 2015 to address water supply issues plaguing a hospital. Water quality was fine and the design of the system seemed reasonable, so Ben and his team quickly determined that the pipes were so clogged with scale that it was necessary to temporarily cut off supply to some of the hospital’s thirty buildings just to deliver an adequate supply to others. The solution? Re-plumb the entire site with scale-resistant plastic pipes.

Still, collecting information on the system was difficult not only because of language differences, but also because there were no schematics or blueprints. “The discussion kept getting pulled in different directions,” Ben said. “It wasn’t efficient. Too many things were happening at once.”

It became obvious that the problem was far more complex than first thought. The biggest impediment was that no one seemed to know where all the pipes were or how the various parts of the system interacted. Someone needed to take charge.

That someone was Ben.

“I said, ‘We have to figure out where the pipes are,’” he recalled. “I wasn’t the dictator. I wanted a solid plan. Everyone on the team spoke up.”

The next day, the team connected with Habakkuk, the local plumber whose job was to operate the valves that directed water around the campus. As it turned out, Habakkuk knew the location of every pipe even though no written plans existed.

“We followed him around all day,” Ben said. “He would say, ‘this direction,’ and then, ‘this direction,’ and then, ‘here it splits three ways.’ When that happened, we would follow each branch separately.”

Habakkuk spoke little English, but Ben found that by serving as moderator, communication remained efficient.

The process remained orderly afterward when each team member had a chance to lead. “We were lucky to have one talented teammate who had the ability to scratch out a bird’s-eye map of the whole system,” Ben said. “Another teammate was a very quiet guy who was excellent at coding, so when we were done with the mapping and needed to enter the data in our computers, he took charge.”

The advisor, who wasn’t “a veteran engineer,” allowed the students to work through the situation. “He had the same attitude we did: ‘I’m trying to figure this out,’” Ben explained. “He kept us where we needed to be and made sure we were safe.”

The Importance of a (Backup) Plan

Elissa’s experience was similar to Ben’s in some ways. After her freshman year at Boston University, she travelled with the school’s Engineers Without Borders group to Chirimoto, Peru, a small, rural village where a flood had knocked out electricity and degraded the water system with silt, clay and coliform bacteria.

The group started out intending to get the power back on, but switched its focus to providing clean water. However, when they got to Peru they discovered the water supply originated from several sources, not all of which could be traced. Elissa wrote in her journal, “We are worried that the sample will have more contaminants than the source because much of the mountain is cow pasture.” Furthermore, the system was not only old and leaky, but had not been built as designed, leaving it without proper filtration. The students concluded that fixing the water problems was beyond their scope.

Fortunately, they had a backup plan. Respiratory illness is a concern in Chirimoto because many homes have improperly vented wood-burning kitchen stoves that allow smoke and fumes to build up indoors. The students set out to tackle that problem, only to confront an obstacle that had more to do with culture than engineering. Specifically, the ovens in most homes sat over a box-like space where guinea pigs were fattened on table scraps until they themselves became dinner.

That wasn’t expected, but Elissa says the group accepted the reality and buckled down to the task. “We were there doing an assessment, surveying and interviewing people,” she said. “Our job wasn’t to say what people should do, but to determine what needed to be done and evaluate if it could be done.”

In the end, the students learned how to make adobe bricks, helped establish a mobile library and consulted the villagers on how to safely install electrical circuits.

Elissa got an even bigger dose of leadership training after the Chirimoto trip when the Engineers Without Borders club tapped her to organize its next project, a trip to Tanzania.

Elissa faced challenges ranging from working with a new sponsoring organization to trying to communicate with people half a world away. Looking back on the experience, Elissa said she picked up important lessons about managing people that she’s used in her career as a mechanical engineer with the Wrightsoft Corporation in Lexington, Massachusetts.

“I had to learn that you’re not being a nag when you follow up with people and ask them how they’re doing with the tasks they’ve been assigned,” she said. “We get projects from builders and give assignments to our teams. They work on them overnight, I review what they’ve done the next day. I stay in contact with them about their progress, change orders and make corrections so that the projects are completed smoothly.”

Prepped at Prairie

Elissa and Ben said that experiences at The Prairie School prepared them for the leadership roles they cut their teeth on in college.

Elissa credits her parents, who served overseas in the Peace Corps, with imparting to her the desire to apply her knowledge and skills to helping people in need. Toward that end, she plans to return to school at the University of Michigan to study public policy and sustainable energy.

She credits the liberal arts approach at Prairie with helping her develop the discipline to think through challenges. “There’s an atmosphere of independence,” she says, “and that’s important.”

During his time at Prairie, Ben served as captain of the soccer team and student government president. Weekly meetings kept him abreast of events, and daily announcements kept him on his game, requiring him to delegate tasks, meet deadlines and think on his feet — all of which came in handy not only in Tanzania, but as his college coursework became increasingly demanding. For one project in particular, his student team had to meet a pressure-packed timeline that involved gathering data and allotted very limited time for lab work. “Before you got to the lab, you had to plan everything through, and in the lab, you had to use every minute efficiently,” he said.

A laid-back guy, Ben is often inclined to let others decide what to do and when. “I don’t mind going along with what someone wants to do,” he said. “Leadership comes in different forms. You can remain quiet and in the background in one situation and still be a leader in another. A leader is someone who steps up when there’s a need for someone to step up.”