Guelph Grads on the Go – Engineer Follows the Music

Clean water and music important for both Canada and Cameroon

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Valery Woloshyn, left, invites her musician friends to help raise money for her school project in Cameroon.

When Valery Woloshyn and her husband, Njacko Backo, travelled to Cameroon to visit his family four years ago, they took some time to check out the school in the town of Bazou that Backo had attended as a child.

“The school was in very poor condition and part of the roof was gone,” says Woloshyn. They’d brought bags of school supplies with them, which the young students were delighted to receive, but were concerned about the state of the building.

Backo is a full-time musician who also teaches in schools; Woloshyn, an engineer, joins him in some of his performances. “We had performed at many fundraisers in the past and thought ‘why not do our own fundraiser and raise money for this school?’ So we did,” she says. “We raised enough at the first event to rehabilitate about a third of the main school building, protecting the mud-brick construction before the rainy season.”

That was four years ago. Since then, more money has been raised each year, and more of the school buildings have been rebuilt. The latrines, which Woloshyn says were neither clean nor safe, have been reconstructed. A connection to the village water supply has been provided, and concrete sidewalks with rain gutters have been added.

The details of their five-year project at Ecole St. Albert Le Grand can be seen at www.bazouschool.blogspot.com.

As the school has improved, the number of students has increased from 212 to more than 300. “Parents in the community are really excited about the school’s improvements and want their children to attend,” Woloshyn explains.

Music and the school in Cameroon are important to Woloshyn, but her full-time work deals with another crucial issue: water. “For the last 10 years, I’ve been with CH2M HILL, and the projects I work on are related to drinking water and wastewater treatment.”

She grew up in Kingston, Ont., and was studying environmental engineering at U of G during the drinking water crisis in Walkerton, Ont. “The hot topic of the time was water treatment,” she says.

Through U of G’s co-op program, she did a placement at CH2M HILL, an international engineering firm with offices across Canada and expertise in water and wastewater management. She also completed an international placement in Denmark, where she worked on projects located in Estonia and Poland, all related to drinking water treatment. “These experiences confirmed for me that consulting would be a good fit,” says Woloshyn.

She had an offer from CH2M HILL as soon as she graduated and now consults with clients across the country, including both large and small municipalities. She has been a project manager for the past seven years.

“For example, one of our clients is a small municipality,” she says. “We go to their facilities to help troubleshoot problems. We might test what happens when the plant runs at maximum capacity. Often, there are one or two or many things that could be improved. In that case, we make recommendations on how to make changes or repairs to improve water quality or restore production capacity.

“We create specifications and design drawings and put together a tender document so the municipality can have contractors bid on it. We then evaluate the bids, provide inspection services during construction, and provide documentation and training to the client.”

Her earlier projects focused on drinking water treatment, but over the last couple of years, she started to work more on wastewater treatment projects. “This is exciting for me,” she says. “I have been fortunate to have the opportunity to work with some of the best in the industry.”

But the most enjoyable part of the job for Woloshyn is seeing the end results. “I really value seeing the things we’ve designed constructed, and leaving the client happy, satisfied and saying, ‘this is much better than before.’”

Outside of work, Woloshyn continues her love for music. “I think it is really good therapy for engineers to play music,” she says. Twelve years ago, she acquired her first drum and went to the Muhtadi International Drumming Festival in Toronto, hoping to get some help with playing it. That’s where she met Backo. As a music teacher, he was happy to help her, and their relationship grew from there.

Several years ago, Woloshyn began to play the kalimba, an African thumb piano. She can be heard playing the kalimba on Backo’s most recent album, Ici Bas Rien N’est Impossible, which was released in February 2013.

“The album also includes a song I wrote with Njacko,” she adds. “I want to play more with him and the band and write more songs, but first I need to practice more!”

Those ambitions have to take a back seat for the next little while, though, because the couple became first-time parents this summer.

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