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Chidubem Nnaji wins Donald A. Strauss Foundation Scholarship

Written by Leon Szeto

Civil and environmental engineering student Chidubem Nnaji has been named a 2021 Donald A. Strauss Foundation Scholar for his project titled “Using Solar Power to Empower.” The annual scholarship was established as a memorial to the late Don Strauss—a successful business executive who had a lifelong interest in education and public service—and awards $15,000 to up to fifteen college sophomores or juniors from pre-selected institutions in California. The scholarship designates $7,000 of the award toward the student’s education, with the remaining $8,000 to fund a project related to education and public service.

Nnaji’s project is focused on bringing accessible, clean water to his village in Nigeria and to educate residents on the importance of sustainable water practices. The goal of this project is to install a solar-powered, self-sustaining water pump that will alleviate the shortage of clean water in the community.

Growing Up

Ever since the age of six, Chidubem Nnaji knew he wanted to be an engineer. As a child, he was always hands-on with helping his father fix things around the house. 

“I was the go-to whenever my parents got new technology,” says Nnaji. Nnaji’s interests in civil engineering really peaked when his family traveled to San Francisco, where for the first time in his life he saw an abundance of high-rise buildings. He was fascinated with the infrastructure and wanted to learn more about the engineering design process used to create them. 

“A family friend recommended UC Davis to me as I explored possible engineering schools,” says Nnaji. “Once I did visit, I instantly fell in love with the small-town vibe and cancelled the rest of my college tours.” Nnaji credits the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and particularly the ECI 3 class, for helping him foster an innovative mindset and out-of-the-box thinking.  

A Plan for Giving Back

Chidubem Nnaji fondly remembers his time as a child in Nigeria. Although he grew up in the city of Enugu, Chidubem remembers the many visits to Amurri and witnessing the poverty-stricken environment first-hand. He also remembers the kindness within the community and the many times members of the community came together and helped his family during trying times. After moving to the U.S, he knew he wanted to utilize his education as a means to give back to his home village. 

In Amurri, residents travel by foot more than five miles a day to obtain fresh drinking water. 

“The driving factors for my project proposal were the lack of a convenient water supply and shortage of a stable power supply in the village,” says Nnaji. “I needed a way to get an adequate supply of water to local residents without relying on an external electricity grid.” 

Drawing from his experiences at UC Davis, Nnaji came up with the idea of installing a solar-powered, self-sustaining water pump.

The project goal is to install a machine-drilled borehole to access clean water in the local aquifer. Using solar panels for power, groundwater will be pumped up to storage tanks, which are then connected to taps for ease of use by local residents. Nnaji plans to work with the Igwes (leaders) in Amurri to ensure equitable access to all residents.

Another focus for Nnaji is to emphasize the importance of water sustainability. He plans to hold a teacher workshop at the local elementary school in Amurri to help incorporate a curriculum teaching the importance of water preservation. Nnaji is planning to allocate part of his scholarship funds to purchase course and classroom materials for teachers in Amurri.

Nnaji plans to use this project as a learning experience. In the long term, his goal is to use this project as a guideline to provide similar communities in Nigeria access to convenient clean potable water.

“I’m so grateful to receive the Strauss Scholarship,” says Nnaji. “It gives me the opportunity to help the less fortunate and give back to the community.”

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