NAIT Class of ’23: School trip to Peru opens business student’s eyes to new possibilities

Solar array installation helps fuel grad’s ambitions

Laura Dotzler (Bachelor of Business Administration ’23, Accounting ’20) couldn’t seem to get her travel plans off the ground.

A high school trip to Europe was cancelled out of caution in light of global unrest. During a stint at university that followed, a trip fell through due to guerilla activity in Central America. Then COVID arrived, Dotzler points out, and laughed at everyone’s plans for everything.

But then another chance arose during her time at the JR Shaw School of Business – the possibility of development work in Peru.

“I was like, ‘This is my last chance to do a school trip,’” said Dotzler in the days before leaving, and before starting a job with an Edmonton accounting firm upon her return.

But this was no business trip. Dotzler would be part of a group responsible for installing a solar power system in a remote Andean village. After growing up in a small town, she recognized the project as a unique opportunity to broaden her horizons.

That she had to learn the rudiments of both another language and electrical wiring didn’t bother her.

“I’m a very hands-on person,” says Dotzler. “I’m a go-getter. If you tell me I can't do something, I'll figure out a way.”

As a novice traveller going well off the beaten track, she had little idea of just how important that attitude would prove.

“A momentous day"

electrical box for solar installation by NAIT students in Peruvian villageInstalling solar in Peru is not part of NAIT’s Accounting program.

Since 2017, Alternative Energy Technology has worked with Light Up the World, a charitable organization that helps communities in developing countries (Peru in particular) transition from fuel-based lighting to solar photovoltaic systems.

In 2022, such projects became the basis of a for-credit course designed to give students hands-on experience and the skills that come from an intercultural experience. And 2023 marked the first time the course was made available outside the alternative energy program.

It aligned perfectly with Dotzler’s ambitions. Throughout her time at NAIT, she’d been part of various extracurricular activities, including business case competitions and as the president of the polytechnic’s chapter of Enactus, a club dedicated to using innovation and business skills to contribute to a sustainable world.

“I really wanted to make my fourth year count,” she says.

So Dotzler left for Peru as part of a contingent of 23 students and three instructors in early May.

This year, the program’s destination was the village of Pallccapampa, many hours’ drive southeast of the Peruvian capital of Lima, and 4,330 metres up into the Andeas. (Edmonton, for reference, is 645 metres above sea level.)

“I really wanted to make my fourth year count.”

light up the world solar installation electrifies school in village of Pallccapampa, PeruThere, they’d install systems to power two small schools, as well as wireless internet to serve the students, staff and surrounding community. Dotzler would help run cable and assemble an electrical box to convert solar energy into usable electricity.

For those with basic electrician skills, it was a job that would be relatively simple anywhere else.

But Pallccapampa, especially in spring, can be challenging for visitors. Some days it snowed. The tents students slept in offered little protection as nights dipped to freezing. For some, the altitude caused headaches and nausea, or worse, requiring recovery at locations closer to sea level. Mostly, Dotzler wasn’t bothered.

“It was good,” she says. “The village had a celebration after. People were saying, ‘It’s a momentous day for us, it’s historical, we’ll remember it forever.’ That was cool.”

The accomplishment had her thinking she might be as resourceful and resilient as she’d suspected. What followed, however, confirmed it.

After Pallccapampa, she and a friend extended their tour of South America, with stops in Argentina and Brazil, where they’d wrap up by taking in the dramatic Iguazu Falls, a UNESCO world heritage site that dwarfs Niagara.

Getting there, however, would require enduring an illness severe enough to warrant arranging a house call from a doctor, navigating a foreign pharmacy system, and tolerating harrowing taxi rides, transportation delays and conflict with her travel partner – that is, tough but character-building experiences she never had in previously aborted attempts at going abroad.

For all that, says Dotzler, who made it to the falls then home to Edmonton, “I’d go again.”

Two ways to look at privilege

machu picchu, peru

Dotzler’s new job won’t require her to do any electrical wiring but she’ll bring skills to it she might not have gained in Peru and her travels. Seeing the difference that a basic utility can make to a community, for example, reminded her to periodically “check her privilege,” she says, and not take things for granted.

But the trip also encouraged Dotzler to explore that privilege and what it might mean to her future.

“I feel like I could live abroad,” she says. A well-appointed apartment in Buenos Aires rents for a fraction of what it might in Edmonton. Food is cheaper. A crosstown Uber costs just a few bucks. Accounting, Dotzler realizes, may be a perfect profession for life as a “digital nomad,” working from wherever she chooses to call home.

“Think of the investments you could make if you don’t have half your income going to rent,” she says. “I’m only 24. If I did this for five or six years, it would make good sense.”

Dotzler’s not naive – she knows that may not be as simple as it sounds. But her education has shown her what she can do when encountering the new and unknown, whether that’s a solar power installation or figuring out how to cure a ragged cough in a country that doesn’t recognize your health-care card.

“The only choice you have,” she says, “is to figure it out.”

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