Armed with an OU engineering degree, a truly small-town girl transforms lives amidst the Himalayas.
Beth Huggins never dreamed work would lead her to the earthquake-devastated communities of rural Nepal, but in the aftermath of a 2015 earthquake, she found her calling building homes and planting trees in Himalayan villages.
Huggins grew up in Watts, Okla., a town east of Tulsa with a population of under 300. She comes from a family of engineers and had known that she wanted to go into some form of engineering since she was young. After graduating high school, she decided to attend the University of Oklahoma—a place much larger than any she’d ever experienced.
“There was a big culture shock when I came to OU,” Huggins says. “My Intro to Chemistry class was the same size as the entire town I grew up in.”
She was passionate about using engineering technology to support community health and planned to go to medical school. Those plans changed when she went to Honduras as a medical volunteer treating intestinal parasites in patients. Huggins found herself thinking like an engineer, wondering what was causing water contamination and how much effort it would take to fix the issue.
“I went through an identity crisis because I was really determined to go to medical school and become a doctor,” she says. “I realized if I became a doctor, I’d be on the treatment side instead of possibly solving the source of the problem. So, I pivoted.”
Huggins developed a focus on water technologies and sanitation work, interned in Ghana, and earned an OU bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering in 2014. She began working for a company in eastern Africa that converted human waste into biofuel. Huggins had decided she would become a member of the Peace Corps—until everything changed.
In April 2015, a massive earthquake struck Nepal, causing enormous casualties and leveling countless buildings across the country. Two of Huggins’ supervisors from her Ghana internship were hiking through the Himalayas when the earthquake happened. They formed an NGO called Conscious Impact to support rural Nepali people whose homes had collapsed. Huggins flew to Nepal to provide help until her Peace Corps deployment. However, her experiences convinced Huggins to stay in Nepal long term with Conscious Impact.
“These were communities that had lived in the mountains forever,” she says. “They’re resilient people and grow all their own food. Their houses had been built about 80 years before and they didn’t have modern technologies of reinforcement. Their homes fell down—two-story and three-story houses—and many people died. A lot of livestock died, which was one of their primary sources of income.”
Huggins was struck by it all. “The villagers really felt like this earthquake was the worst they’d ever seen. To hear their vulnerability, to hear the challenge of that … I couldn’t leave.”
Conscious Impact began its existence teaching rural Nepali communities how to produce earth bricks to rebuild homes. Earth bricks are made from soil, sand and cement combined and compressed in a machine. Huggins and the Conscious Impact team delivered 350,000 bricks in the region and supported more than 120 household projects in five years of earthquake reconstruction. For the first four years of the experience, she lived in a tent.
“Finally, I was feeling like this was what I wanted to do,” she says. “I want to be in the field. I want to look for solutions that work for communities and that community members are excited about. My passion for this work has only grown since then.”
Huggins has coordinated many other Conscious Impact projects, including planting coffee and fruit trees to generate more income for farmers and installing plumbing to deliver water to every home within a village. A large part of her work involves training locals to take over projects and continue them.
In addition to her Nepali efforts, Huggins is collaborating with Regeneration Field Institute in a post-earthquake region of Ecuador to revitalize ecosystems and develop agroforestry systems. The region only has about 2% of its primary forest left, so planting new trees and restoring the natural ecology is a major focus, she says.
Huggins’ international experiences have provided more than just a job. She has climbed the peaks of the Himalayas and fallen in love with the cuisine of rural Nepal, which is rich in locally grown vegetables, rice and lentils. Along the way, Huggins met her husband, Anjesh Shrestha, a Nepal native and Conscious Impact colleague. The two recently celebrated an Oklahoma wedding and will marry again in a traditional Nepali ceremony.
Huggins’ other great love is her mission.
“I’ve learned that I want to continue to support farmers around the world, because it’s what we all depend on,” she says. “Food producers are some of the most important people on our planet, and they work the hardest and get the least amount of money of anyone.”
To see an OU Alumni Association interview with Beth Huggins or watch videos from other globetrotting alums, visit Sooners Around the World at https://www.youtube.com/@ousooneralumni.
Leo Emerson is a strategic communications specialist for the University of Oklahoma Foundation.
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