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Manny Valbuena Peña pursues career that emphasizes the social side of sustainability

Growing up, Manny Valbuena Peña loved to be outside riding his bike, going on walks with his parents, and playing soccer with his dad. Almost every Sunday after church, his family would make a 40-minute drive to Cliffs of the Neuse State Park.

“I always felt better,” he said. “When I was outside, I felt happier. You would just run around and do whatever and there were really no rules.”

That feeling led him to pursue a career related to nature in some capacity. Next month, Valbuena Peña, who is a Goodnight Scholar, will graduate with a B.S. in environmental engineering.

But over his four years at NC State University, his interest in the social side of environmental issues continued to grow, leading him down a less-conventional path than other environmental engineers.

One approach to sustainability principles is the three-legged stool metaphor: the social, environmental and economic sides all need to be considered equally, Valbuena Peña explained.

“Sustainability is something that should really be intentional, and really take into account all stakeholders and all parties,” he said. “I think a lot of people and a lot of companies are really focusing on the environmental part, and the economic part, which are important, but there’s still a lot of work to be done in the social aspects. I think that’s where I want to go with my career.”

Valbuena Peña will be starting a master’s degree in city planning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill this August. He is interested in the planning behind why buildings or infrastructure are built where they are built, and who is affected by those decisions.

“It’s all of the interdisciplinary aspects of what makes up engineering and what makes up infrastructure and then puts it at a level where it’s focused more on logistics, community engagement, social valuation,” he said.

Family ties and a Goodnight Scholarship

Valbuena Peña grew up in Warsaw, North Carolina, about an hour southeast of Raleigh.

About a year-and-a-half before he was born, his parents immigrated to Warsaw from Bogotá, Colombia, for his mother’s ESL teaching career. He last visited Bogotá when he was in middle school, “too long ago,” he said. He feels immediately connected to the food and culture when he visits, and it was a family member still living there who first told him about environmental engineering.

One weekend, he was visiting his grandparents in Holly Springs, North Carolina, when his aunt was in town from Colombia. She is a chemical engineer, and she told him about how environmental engineering is a growing field. He looked at the curriculum for the degree at NC State, thought it sounded cool, and went from there.

The Goodnight Scholarship Program (GSP) ultimately brought Valbuena Peña to NC State. The program provides students with a full ride in addition to experiential learning and development opportunities. Since his second year at NC State, he has been a Goodnight Scholars Ambassador and promotes the scholarship to accepted students.

“I was lucky that I was invited to apply,” he said. “But if I hadn’t been, I really would not have known about the program. So [I wanted to make] that information as widely known as possible. It can make a difference in anyone’s life.”

Broadening experiences through travel

Valbuena Peña joined NC State’s chapter of Engineers Without Borders (EWB) during his first year, when he became part of the Guatemala Water & Sanitation (GWS) team. Eventually he became a project lead and coordinated the construction and installation of 70 rainwater harvesting systems in the Caserio Panhux community in central Guatemala. Caserio Panhux is a community of about 350 people, located about a five-hour drive from Guatemala City in the mountains.

During the dry season in Caserio Panhux, women and children walk to a spring two miles away for fresh water. Using the rainwater harvesting systems, the community will be able to collect and store enough water during the rainy season to decrease those trips, and women and children will be able to spend time on other tasks, including school.

EWB emphasizes solutions that the community takes ownership of beyond EWB’s involvement. While much of the planning happens at NC State, the team was in contact with the community via an NGO that connects with local indigenous groups.

Valbuena Peña visited Caserio Panhux twice, most recently over spring break in March to close out the project. He is one of the few team members who speaks fluent Spanish, and he said that seeing the systems made a world of difference in understanding the project.

“Engineers Without Borders, it meant a lot to me,” he said. “… Our big thing is social sustainability, like making sure that what we’re implementing makes sense for the community, that they have a say in it, and then at the end of it, they’re able to manage it without our help. It’s also been really valuable for leadership and skills acquisition.”

Outside of EWB, Valbuena Peña traveled to North California through GSP and to Iceland on a green energy-focused spring break trip made possible by his scholarship funding. Post-graduation, he’s continuing to travel before starting school. He heads to Vancouver in May through one last GSP trip, and later this summer, he’s going back to Iceland with his parents and brother, where he’ll be spending a lot of time outside.

“It’s a period of time when there’s 20 hours of sunlight,” he said. “It’ll be interesting to go back because I went in March and looking back, that was one of the coolest trips. … We want to go around the whole island.”

This story first appeared in College of Engineering News.