Published: Dec. 18, 2018 By

Austin Riley at Machu PiccuAustin Riley grew up on travel and giving back.

It has taken him on mission trips to developing countries, led him to attend the University of Colorado Boulder, helped him become fluent in Spanish, and as he prepares to graduate, provided his career ambition.

“I love engineering, but I really love what engineering can do,” Riley said.

When the Highlands Ranch, Colorado, native walks across the graduation stage later this month, he will complete his tenure at CU Boulder with an undergraduate degree in civil engineering and a master’s in environmental engineering. He will also leave with special distinction as the December 2018 Outstanding Graduate for International Engagement.

It is an honor that celebrates his leadership and direct efforts to improve lives in developing communities, as well as his work to break down silos that often separate international students from the larger campus community.

Riley’s connection to international engagement began early. Growing up, he took part in church-organized mission trips to Haiti and Nicaragua. At CU Boulder, those early experiences quickly drew him to the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

“Austin was the youngest active member in EWB Peru when I began advising the group. He joined as a freshman and immediately took on significant duties,” said Rita Klees, a professor of engineering practice in the Civil, Environmental and Architectural Engineering Department.

Austin at a Water for People tripDuring a trip to Peru, Riley and a team of students renovated a village water system to improve efficiency and add filtration. Here in America, such a project would often mean showcasing the latest in technology, but EWB is about empowering local communities, and that means thinking locally as well.

“Financing has to be sustainable, and replacement parts need to be available nearby. Too often we try to come up with crazy high-tech solutions when it’s old solutions that work. Sand, chlorine and gravity make great water systems,” Riley said.

Just that one project in Peru will benefit 800 people.

When Riley was considering colleges, he chose CU Boulder for two reasons: the campus chapter of EWB, and the Global Engineering Residential Academic Program. Specially designed for students who want to build an engineering career to have a global impact, participants take special courses and live together in one of the campus residence halls. The initiative began Riley’s freshman year.

“I was part of the pilot class. There were 40 of us on one floor. Now we take up the entire dorm. There’s 150 people. It’s a really supportive community,” Riley said.

As a student with international interests, it may come as no surprise Riley also sought out study abroad. He spent a semester in Madrid, Spain, immersing himself in the country. He was already fairly proficient with Spanish but can now say he is fluent after spending months living with a non-English-speaking family and taking Spanish-language engineering courses.

Taking engineering classes in a second language and being surrounded by classmates who were native speakers was an intense commitment, but it had a significant impact. During his time overseas he visited Paris and took in the Eiffel Tower. He also made an excursion to Iceland, but it was something much smaller that he remembers most fondly: lunch with a local.

“It was much bigger for me the first time a Spanish classmate asked if I wanted to go to lunch. It meant so much. I was so excited I called my family just to tell them, ‘Mom, Dad, I’ve made a friend in Spain!’ It helped me realize how important those friendships can be for international students everywhere,” he said.

Austin with Christian Challenge friendsRiley had already been involved at CU Boulder in Christian Challenge, a campus ministry group that does significant outreach to international students. Engagement with the organization has helped him forge strong relationships with students from other countries.

Last month for Thanksgiving, he invited three of them to join his family for dinner. As a uniquely American holiday, it is not something most people outside the U.S. have experienced.

“For them, it had a huge impact because it was their first Thanksgiving,” Riley said.

When Riley began at CU Boulder, he planned to earn a bachelor’s degree and enter the workforce, but then he discovered the Mortenson Center in Engineering for Developing Communities.

Begun in 2003, the program is the only one of its kind in the nation. Offering numerous graduate degree options, the center combines education, research and partnerships to positively impact vulnerable people and their environment worldwide by improving development tools and practice.

“I wouldn’t have been interested in a master’s otherwise. I’ve learned so much. It fits in exactly with what I want to do as a career,” Riley said.

After graduation, Riley will begin a job at the headquarters of Engineering Without Borders USA in Denver. It is only a part-time position, at least to start. But it is where he wants to be – making a difference.

“We underestimate the power engineering has to help people,” Riley said. “We have this amazing almost superpower to help around the world, and many students don’t even know it. CU Boulder has shown me that potential."