Undergraduate student studies coastal flooding in Hawaii and Sri Lanka through Honors Odyssey Fellowship
November 12, 2015
He went around the world in 80 days. From Hawaii to Sri Lanka, Adrian Santiago Tate, a senior majoring in civil engineering in the College of Engineering, found more than education and learning. He found culture and experience.
Santiago Tate is the 2014 recipient of the Wayne and Claire Horton Odyssey Fellowship, a scholarship offered by the University Honors Program to engineering students who wish to apply their focus to the social sciences and humanities.
After an international childhood – born in Spain and raised in Holland – Santiago Tate chose to attend Virginia Tech in 2012. The following year, as a rising sophomore studying civil engineering, the University Honors program invited him to apply.
“I got an email about joining honors when I was with my friend hitchhiking through Ireland,” Santiago Tate said. “You know, when you’re traveling you’re really open to anything, so I was like, ‘Why not? I’ll just apply.’”
Soon after joining the program, he said another opportunity came up that would change his college career.
“In my Intro to Civil Engineering class, an alum who was from Bridges to Prosperity did this little inspiring speech. I asked myself, ‘What I am doing with my life? I should be doing more than just learning, I should be helping people,’” Santiago Tate explained. “I was really inspired and had all of this eager energy. Then, that same day I found out about the [Odyssey] scholarships. It was like total serendipity. I knew I had to apply.”
The University Honors program offers six Odyssey Fellowships in various subject areas that allow a student to travel and “do something to be a more interesting person.” When he started the application process, Santiago Tate proposed a trip to Bangladesh.
“The Netherlands is where I grew up. It’s a tiny little country that’s really wealthy and it’s all below sea level, so they built all these coastal engineering structures to prevent the country from flooding. I wanted to go to Bangladesh, which has the same geography with high population density but is comparatively poor,” he said.
After safety threats and internship changes, Santiago Tate’s trip morphed into a three-month trip during summer 2015 that took to him to Hawaii for a month, followed by several weeks in Sri Lanka.
In Hawaii, Santiago Tate spent four weeks working for the Army Corps of Engineers, traveling from beach to beach to study rising sea levels.
“All of the beaches in Hawaii are eroding because of rising sea levels. Everyone has property around the beach, so if the beach is eroding, they are at risk of their house floating away. It’s getting worse and nobody cares,” Santiago Tate said. “People care more about their houses than the beach. I really saw the social and cultural side of it.”
From there, he took a week-long break in Bali, where he had lived for a month after graduating from high school. Then it was back to work, as Santiago Tate traveled to Sri Lanka for the first time.
Santiago Tate worked with an organization that had multiple stations throughout the country, so he constantly moved from province to province. He based his research on surveys of local attitudes and notions toward flood protection infrastructure in third world countries – but he studied the people, as well.
“In Sri Lanka, the people are as good as people will ever get. People are open because they are just excited that a foreigner is interested in what they are doing,” Santiago Tate explained as he told the story of a man he met at breakfast one morning who soon became his two-day tour guide.
“A lot of college kids have this crazy notion that they want to save the world – I did too. Then you get to a new place and you realize that you can learn more from the people there than they can from you,” Santiago Tate said. “Learning that was huge because I kind of let go of the whole saving-the-world dream and now I have more of a controlled dream.”
Santiago Tate is now in Blacksburg taking his last round of classes and planning to graduate in December. As a part of the fellowship, winners must sit in on the committees that choose future scholarship recipients.
“The process is long and a lot of people don’t even hear about it. Most people find out when it’s too late,” Santiago Tate said. “I think this is the best opportunity I’ve had since I’ve been at Tech. This really changed everything for me. It made me really confident in what I’m doing with my life and that’s not necessarily what I’ve been expected to do my whole life.”
Written by Leslie McCrea, a senior studying multimedia journalism in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.