Jeff Yoder: MS, Environmental Engineer
- Villanova University, Villanova, Pennsylvania – M.S. in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering;
- Managed the water division of a bilateral Australia and Timor-Leste rural water/sanitation program;
- Directed the tsunami response program for a regional Oxfam office and then Mennonite Central Committee in Aceh, Indonesia following the December 2004 earthquake and tsunami;
- Directed regional offices and rural water programs for Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee in Timor-Leste;
- Wrote an Indonesian-language book on gravity-based water system design and construction;
- Designed and built rural water systems through a local university in West Papua, Indonesia;
- Worked on hydraulic design of bridges for a Pennsylvania-based engineering consulting firm;
- Taught high school mathematics for 12 years.
As a water resources engineer, I have worked to improve people’s lives throughout the world. I have designed and built water systems in Papua, Indonesia. Following the December 2004 Asian tsunami I directed an aid programs in Aceh, Indonesia. I developed a rural water supply program on the half-island nation of Timor-Leste, and I’ve created hydraulic designs for bridges in the U.S. I have had opportunities to contribute to design, construction, plans and policies on water supply in rural and emergency settings throughout Southeast Asia, and I am never so pleased as when I see clean water flowing for communities who live in a dry land.
This was never more true than when I was working for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) in the district of Oecusse, Timor-Leste, shortly after it gained its independence from Indonesia. With my local staff of eight people, we were tasked with supplying the small village of Benais with water that would be piped in from a spring several miles away.
When the project was about to start, my team and I went to Benais and talked with the people there. One man told me, “Our water makes me very tired.” “Hum…, tired,” I said, “Why is that?” After all, I knew that water is energizing and life-giving, but never that it would make someone tired. He went on to explain that in the dry season, which they were currently experiencing, all of their water-gathering points would dry up except for one, and water there would seep in very slowly. So all of the families from the village needed to stand in line to wait their turn to get water. Because the water flowed in so slowly, many people would wait in line until late at night or early in the morning before getting their turn to collect water. This meant that they could not sleep, so water (or lack of it) was making him tired.
My team of Timorese water technicians and I were able to work with this man, his village, and several surrounding communities and eventually develop a solution where water was slowly piped into a 500-gallon tank throughout the year, ending their water crisis. I was fortunate to be able to make a follow-up visit to this same village almost eleven years after we installed the water system and see that the system was still functioning well, so that water no longer kept families from getting sufficient rest.
But water was not on my mind in 1980, when I was a senior in high school. Then, I had little idea of how my life would turn out. That year I graduated from a small Christian high school. My faith and values were solid, my work ethic was strong, and I knew that I wanted to serve God and improve the world, but how? I had no idea. I had already rejected several plans. Becoming a pilot? – that didn’t feel real to me. I didn’t know anyone who was a pilot and didn’t view that as a realistic career path. Become a lawyer? – possibly, but how is suing people a part of serving God? Political science? – sounds interesting, but I hardly knew what it was. So I decided to attend a small Midwestern liberal arts college and study history. Of course, I thought, you study the mistakes that people made throughout history, and then you can teach others how to not make those mistakes.
Of course I was wrong. In one of my first history classes we looked at reasons for studying history, only to conclude that people don’t actually learn from history. Each generation seems to make the same mistakes as those who went before them. So, what’s the point, I thought; enough of this, I’ll study math, instead! And that’s what I did.
I graduated from college with a B.A. in mathematics and certification to teach. I didn’t plan to teach for the rest of my life, but saw it as a practical way to give back to God and my worldwide community what had so graciously been bestowed upon me – opportunity. I wasn’t sure that math alone would be my future either. I had studied alongside a group of very sharp people and while I could hold my own, I knew that theoretical mathematics was not my passion or my future. I would need something more grounded.
The year after graduating from college, I found myself teaching math, working as a volunteer through Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) in an African Methodist Episcopal Church school in Lusaka, Zambia, for three years. It was there that I sensed God leading my next steps. As important as teaching is, I knew it would not be my end career. Zambia had opened my eyes to things that I had never considered or had always taken for granted. Water was one of those things. Growing up in the United States, I couldn’t recall a single day when I would turn a tap and water would fail to come out, but that was common in Zambia. In the U.S. it was a rarity for people to get sick from drinking tap water, but it frequently happened in Zambia. It was then that I sensed God calling me to become a civil engineer, to study water and to serve God’s people where it was most needed. Imagine that, doing God’s work as an engineer! I was onto it.
The road was not an easy one. I came home from Zambia with almost no money, so for the next few years I taught math in the day and studied at night. While having studied math was helpful, there were still quite a number of undergraduate courses that I needed to take before beginning my masters-level engineering courses. But with time and persistence, everything came together and I graduated with an M.S. in Water Resources and Environmental Engineering. I only wished that I had realized earlier that I wanted to become a civil engineer. If so, I might have arranged my undergraduate studies quite differently!
After returning home from Zambia, I stayed in the U.S. for ten years: six years of teaching and studying, and then four years of working in a civil engineering consulting firm, working on hydraulic design of bridges, scour analysis, floodplain mapping, site design, and a short stint in a FEMA subcontract. While I truly believe that I could have served God well in that capacity for the remainder of my career, it was not for me. I remembered that in Zambia my impetus for becoming an engineer was to serve God’s people where most needed. That meant that I needed to move again.
So back to MCC I went. I was ready to return to Zambia or at least in Africa, but there were no opening there that matched my skills. How disappointing! After all of my studying and planning, I was sure that was where I was supposed to go. But while there were no openings in African countries, MCC introduced me to Cenderawasih University in the Indonesian province of Irian Jaya (now West Papua). They needed an engineer/lecturer who could work with communities and design and build water systems. Again, I was onto it.
My time in Papua, Indonesia was spent walking to remote villages that weren’t connected by roads, designing and installing water systems, and trying to figure out what community development meant to local people. Although I was working through a local government-run university, most Papuans were Christians and the church was very strong. Most of the villages where we worked had churches and we would always try to connect them to our work, thus demonstrating that the church was involved in meeting people’s needs in multiple ways. Again, I could see how God was using this engineering work to strengthen the Kingdom.
Often in my life I have found myself feeling as I did when I was 17 years old and unsure what my next steps in life should be. Periodic changing of jobs and frequent relocation are quite typical in international water and development work, as contracts end when projects are completed and terms are usually limited by their nature or by government permission. This can be stressful because so much change sometimes brings uncertainty of what will happen next, but it is good in that, through taking leaps of faith, I see what God is doing with and through me. I realize that I am never alone and that God always provides.
Finding that next position or next step has often required patience and action. My wife and I first decided to move to Timor-Leste to conduct a research project for her Ph.D. Shortly before we were to leave, I interviewed for what appeared to be a perfect-fit position for me. When I heard that I did not get that job, I was devastated, but we needed to go to Timor-Leste with or without me having a job, so we did. We lived in the capital city of Dili for about a month, studying language and wondering how this was going to work out, when out of the blue the same organization that had not hired me called and asked if I could begin another position in two days’ time. They had just received approval for funding for a program that was an even better fit for my background, skills, and commitments. Of course I took the position, which has led to many years of related service in Timor-Leste and Southeast Asia. Both the patience and persistence were important, as was trusting God and accepting God’s timing.
Civil engineering has allowed me to serve God, God’s people, and God’s creation. It has opened doors and allowed me to use my background in math and engineering to help strengthen God’s church and to be an advocate for others. As I continue in my career, I continue to serve God even as my circumstances change. I also hope my curiosity persists so that I continue to ask, “What’s the next thing that God has for me to do?”