In his 30-plus years of teaching at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, Dr. Samuel Owusu-Ababio, professor of civil engineering, has had a transformational impact on the education of countless students. And by instilling in students the importance of using that education to engage in community and international humanitarian service, that impact extends far beyond campus. Owusu-Ababio will be recognized at UW-Platteville’s faculty and staff convocation on Thursday, Sept. 1 with the 2022 Nimocks Family Faculty Appreciation Award.
Created by former provost and vice chancellor of Academic Affairs Dr. Mittie Nimocks Den Herder, the award honors outstanding faculty at UW-Platteville who, among other traits, place a priority on creating opportunities for students to engage in high-impact practices. Over the years, Owusu-Ababio has created a number of engaging opportunities for students – from founding the student chapter of the Institute of Transportation Engineers to collaborating with civil engineering faculty to attract nearly $1.2 million in highway research funding. But for many former students, it was his creation of the UW-Platteville chapter of Engineers Without Borders that was most impactful.
"Dr. Sam has created an environment where students can challenge themselves to do things they would have never thought they were capable of doing." – Matthew Buffo '20
Since the chapter’s inception 15 years ago, more than 150 students have traveled with Owusu-Ababio to his home country of Ghana to build six infrastructure projects. Prominent among them are five school buildings for two schools – which now provide education to 920 children – and a bridge that provides about 500 people access to critical needs like a market, health services and education centers. Owusu-Ababio estimates that over the years, the work students have done through UW-Platteville’s Engineers Without Borders chapter has already benefited 8,000 people.
“This is how the students get the practical aspect of what they are learning in the classroom,” said Owusu-Ababio. “When we are here and do engineering, everything is by the book. But, when you get out there, sometimes the things you prepare for are different and you need to be able to think on your feet. That’s something we love to see when we get together. Also, they see the impact they are making on underprivileged communities. Some of them have never traveled before, and so they discover the world in a new way.”
Alumnus Nick Confer was heavily involved in the Engineers Without Borders UW-Platteville chapter from its inception through his graduation in 2011, traveling to Ghana twice with Owusu-Ababio.
"The numerous lessons I've learned from Dr. Sam and Engineers Without Borders about project management, engineering and entrepreneurship have been invaluable for me not only professionally but also in my personal life,” said Confer, who is now the director of engineering, research and production at Axiom Energy. “My family operates a nonprofit, implementing projects in Kenya, and my experience has been key in making those successful.”
Drawing on his experience working with Owusu-Ababio, Confer led a group of volunteers in Kenya in building a sustainable chicken farm that supports a school in a displaced persons camp. He has also continued to stay involved with the Engineers Without Borders organization since his graduation and even mentored a group of students on a trip in 2019.
“Being involved in Engineers Without Borders for over 15 years now, I've consistently seen many young students develop into talented professionals and well-rounded, globally-minded citizens under Dr. Sam's guidance. Thousands of people in Ghana will directly feel the ripples of his involvement for generations."
Matthew Buffo was a 2020 graduate of UW-Platteville and is currently a design engineer at Electrical Consultants Inc.
"Personally, I can say that my experiences with the Engineers Without Borders UW-Platteville chapter have taught me the most valuable lessons that I have learned during my time at UW-Platteville,” said Buffo. “Dr. Sam has created an environment where students can challenge themselves to do things they would have never thought they were capable of doing. The greatest lesson that I have learned from Dr. Sam is that you don't need to be an expert to make the world a better place. If you are willing to try your best, you can make a difference. Thanks to Dr. Sam, many generations of students, including myself, have learned what it takes to be a successful leader and have gained the confidence to stay ambitious in our future endeavors.”
Testimonials, like these, from his former students are what Owusu-Ababio says is most affirming when receiving this award.
“I love my students; they are dedicated to whatever they set their minds to do,” said Owusu-Ababio. “When they come back from trips to Ghana, they are never the same. They think, ‘how come people are so poor there, but they are happy, and why am I complaining about the little things here?’ My goal is to see students become successful in their future careers. When they are acknowledging that what I am doing is leading them to that goal, that is most important.”
Owusu-Ababio continues to work with engineering practitioners in Ghana. He was recently invited by the Ghana Institution of Engineering – the professional engineering body in Ghana – to lead efforts to reform engineering professional practice in Ghana. This includes developing a practice to engage Ghanaian students, modeled after the work of UW-Platteville’s Engineers Without Borders.