Through LINC, December Graduate Lives Out Passion for Kids

Mike Koon, Engineering Communications Office

Amy Momsen’s passion for helping others is not an aberration; it’s what drives her. It had everything to do with her decision to major in materials science and engineering and study biomaterials at the University Illinois. Once on campus, programs like the university’s Learning in Community (LINC) were vehicles for the Hanover Park, Ill., native to express that passion in tangible ways.

LINC (ENG 315) is a service-learning course offered through the College of Engineering where students form groups and are matched with community partners in the conception, development and implementation of projects. The work culminates in a poster session at the end of each semester.

Through LINC, students “gain knowledge and skills in conducting research, understanding social and environmental issues, analyzing community and organizational needs and assets, defining problems, generating and analyzing solutions, identifying and mobilizing resources, project scoping, planning and execution, teamwork and leadership, communication, problem-solving, critical thinking, professional writing, and civic responsibility.”

This week, Momsen is completing her degree and will use her experiences at Illinois, and specifically LINC, to define a new chapter in her life as part of Teach for America, where she will have the opportunity to affect the lives of teens at a Nashville, Tenn., high school.

Momsen doesn’t have trouble identifying the moment that catapulted her down this path, but to this day, she can’t talk about it without tearing up.  She volunteered with the Special Olympics in middle school and high school, primarily working with athletes in swimming, gymnastics and dance. It was through a trip with state qualifiers to Normal during her second year with the organization that provided that life-changing event.

“One of the participants was nine years old and blind and had never got in the water before,” she explained, “yet he got gold at the state competition. It was in working with him for the sixth months leading up to that day that I saw I could make a difference.”

Momsen decided that it was through engineering where she could have the most impact on society, particularly the youth, and discovered LINC early in her college career. Her experience with the program not only matched her love of service and her desire to help underrepresented groups, but also taught her those important life skills. As a result, she continued with LINC throughout her studies at Illinois, which included several leadership roles.

Over that time, Momsen worked closely with BUMP (formerly Illini Prosthetic Technologies), which develops products, such as the OpenSocket prosthetic arm, to be used by non-profits serving the developing world.  Her collaboration with BUMP came as the organization was scaling up production because of a grant it had received to produce prosthetics for children in India.

“Our main focus was finding a system or program where they could have mass production days,” Momsen recalls. “We also helped make documents and training videos, allowing more people to assist in making those arms.”

This summer she led a group to the village of Konilo-Coura in West Africa for 23 days as part of the Mali Water Project. The project was the idea of Dr. Osee Sanago, a post-doctorate research assistant in the Department of Animal Biology who grew up in Konilo-Coura. Its mission is to provide sustainable water solutions to the village.

The trip to Mali was another of those life-changing events for Momsen. Her team set out to build biosand filters for the community of about 1,000 residents. The filters are encapsulated in a one-foot wide concrete pillar, filled first with gravel at the bottom and then sand to filter out bacteria from the water. The filtered water is then pumped through a tube and distributed.

In addition to building the filters, the team networked with local non-governmental organizations and assessed the project site with the goal of bringing clean and accessible water to the village.

To build the filters, the team first needed to create a mold of steel. However, after running into several roadblocks in doing so, they decided to instead make the molds out of wood despite not having any power tools available. Not only were they successful in creating a finished product, but also were able to train members of the community to form the mold necessary to build future models. They have built four more filters since the summer.

“We also stressed the maintenance and education that continues after we leave,” Momsen said. “We worked with the townspeople to be salesmen and train their family and friends as to why it’s so important to use.

“It was super stressful, but probably my biggest learning experience of college. At the end of every day, the kids would come to the house and I thought to myself that it’s all about the kids. After the trip when reflecting on what we had accomplished and the follow-up work we’ve done since then. I don’t regret a single moment.“

Over the last three years, Momsen has supported LINC’s activities while also becoming one of its biggest advocates.

“I could not imagine where I would be without LINC at this point in my engineering career,” Momsen said. “The most common comment I hear from students when they begin is that they think it’s just a projects course. But when the poster session comes around, they realize they learned a lot about service learning, how to work in a team, how to collaborate with community partners and how to write professionally. As a leader, everything I learned about managing groups of my own peers, being organized, and deciding a project’s scope are valuable when in the job interview process.”

Momsen interviewed with many potential employers during the fall, but ultimately her passion to affect the youth of the world led her to be a part of Teach for America. In addition to teaching, she plans to complete a master of education degree at Lipscomb University over the next two years and become involved with non-profits in the area.

“My work through the Mali Water Project made me even more motivated to continue to impact lives. I know that’s what I want to do and that I made the right career choice with for my training. It was the opportunities at this university that have allowed me to make what I wanted to of my engineering degree. The fact that I was able to find a program like LINC and dig into my motivation and figure out what I wanted from that made all the difference.”