In Matagalpa, Nicaragua, flash floods are a part of everyday life.
Villagers are forced to cross torrential rivers due to heavy rainfall just to reach a local market.
“When I was there, I saw people walk through this river, and it rained the night before,” Kiersten Wang said. “They were walking, holding kids on their shoulders in waist deep waters.”
In Summer 2011, Wang traveled to Nicaragua with her father Tim, a civil engineer for CH2M Hill, and students from Rice University to aid a nonprofit organization called Bridges to Prosperity.
They surveyed a bridge project in Barrio Lucidia Mantilla to provide a safer route to markets, clinics and schools for more than 500 locals.
“I loved getting the community involved to a build a bridge that they really needed,” Wang said.
But when she was there, Wang could not help but notice Matagalpa’s poor living conditions. People took to garbage for shelter, and with no vehicles, they were forced to cross the unsafe river by foot.
Wang said the water is contaminated. Upstream, just yards away from the survey site, was a water treatment plant that dumped chemicals into the river.
Just a half-mile down, she says, kids and families were taking baths and washing their clothes in the murky water.
“This is a third-world country we’re talking about,” Wang said.
By the end of 2012, the 147.6-foot bridge was finished, but for Wang, it was just the beginning.
Two years later, she has decided to pursue a career in civil engineering. Her father did not pressure her to pursue his profession.
“He never really tried to force it on me,” Wang said. “He thinks it’s cool now, and he’s definitely willing to help me out.”
In her senior year at Monument, Colo., Palmer Ridge High, Wang took up the course “Intro to Engineering.” There she developed an interest in pulleys, towers that supported weights and machines built to hold marbles.
“I called it advanced Lego’s,” Wang said.
Her mentality has carried over into the gym where the sophomore has hit collegiate-bests on both floor and vault with scores of 9.875 and 9.9.
Coach Rhonda Faehn says it’s a rarity to find a student-athlete as committed as Wang.
“She’s just very disciplined,” Faehn said. “She came in day one as a freshman knowing that there is life after gymnastics. She’s not happy if she doesn’t get straight A’s.”
Kiersten Wang performs on the uneven parallel bars in Florida’s win against Kentucky on Feb 22.