Spring 2012

Student puts village on the Web

Harpur Fellow goes to Costa Rica

Feature Image
The satellite dish is being installed on a rooftop in Tres Piedras, Costa Rica.

“When the earthquake struck, I thought I broke the building.”

Binghamton University history major Allison Jaekle was worried that her work to bring the Internet to the remote village of Tres Piedras, Costa Rica, had just ended in disaster. Was the 6-foot-diameter satellite dish on the roof going to crash through the rafters? Fortunately, both Jaekle and the receiver survived the earthquake intact, bringing the small community access to the wider world.

Last year Jaekle was named a Harpur Fellow, a competitive fellowship established by donors. To qualify, students must commit to completing a self-designed project that improves a community anywhere in the world. Jaekle was awarded nearly $4,000 to purchase two rugged computers and a satellite system.

Tres Piedras, in southwest Costa Rica, is home to the Tropical Forestry Initiative (TFI). Jaekle, a self-described “avid hiker and adventurer,” had spent a semester at TFI discovering a passion for environmental history. “This wasn’t like other study-abroad programs — it was exciting to think that you are going to be out in the jungle.”

In Tres Piedras she was struck by the village’s poverty and isolation. Education, in particular, was lacking. “Schools there have minimal resources,” Jaekle says, “and don’t offer much for students.”

Returning to Binghamton, Jaekle saw the Harpur Fellows program as an opportunity to help Tres Piedras.

Working with Mary Jawlik ’02, TFI manager, she developed a plan to link the village with the wider world. The hard work began when she returned to Costa Rica.

“My first consideration was about how the villagers would react — would they see this as a bad force in the community? But they were very positive. After that it was all business — getting the proper permits, finding purveyors and shippers who could supply and install the equipment and do it for a reasonable cost.”

With everything ready to go, Jaekle was shocked one day to find that the shipper she had contracted with had gone out of business just days before the equipment was due to be shipped. A frantic search led to a new company — and, as a bonus, a significantly reduced installation price. 

Within days the satellite dish was on the roof, and villagers and researchers were lining up to use the equipment.

“While I am glad that this may open up employment chances for the residents, and that it is a tool for the researchers at TFI, first and foremost I hope that the Internet is used for education,” Jaekle says. “For example, if students can go online to find ways to understand a math concept. You see students saying, ‘Oh, now I get it!’”

According to Dick Andrus, associate professor of environmental studies and chair of TFI, “Allison’s project was immediately valuable to both the community and the researchers at TFI — it provided crucial access for people at the station and the village.” 

TFI initially assumed financial responsibility for maintaining satellite service until increasing costs forced the lab to suspend the service. In February, Jaekle reported that as more cell towers have been built, limited Internet access has been restored. “I am working with them now to see whether we should sell the satellite dish and switch to this Internet fully,” she says.

Despite the ups and downs, Jaekle is proud of the work she accomplished. “By the time I was done with the [satellite installation] project, I had a stronger understanding of the technologies involved — but I also had a better understanding of myself. I’m only 22 — and I’ve done something rewarding and meaningful.

“The Harpur Fellows program played a key role in this, and Binghamton has given me so many opportunities that I would not have had had I gone to another school.”