UB junior wins Udall Scholarship
UB Buffalo Junior Esther Buckwalter—winner of the nationally coveted Morris K. Udall Scholarship—has all the tools to solve a significant piece of the global water crisis. The extra bonus Buckwalter brings is her ability to charm those around her while doing it.
Buckwalter’s environmental engineering resume and humanitarian dossier would be impressive for anyone three times her age. She has spent the last three years as a grass-roots activist working on a host of environmental and sustainability issues, as distant as Asia and local as Buffalo’s East Side.
With communications skills honed from her summer in Mexico when she needed non-verbal techniques to complement her less-than-perfect Spanish, as well as a look and heartland smile out of a Laura Ingalls book, Buckwalter inspires confidence that she can face whatever formidable Third World or Inner City problem she takes on.
“Water amazes me,” says Buckwalter, a native of Alfred, N.Y. “Water forms our landscapes, dictates the functions of our bodies, grows our food sources and powers some of our cities. It’s so basic and necessary.”
Buckwalter has the small-town appeal that comes from graduating first in her class from the Alfred-Almond School district. Her parents, Laurel and John, each teach college in Alfred (at Alfred University and Alfred Technical College, respectively). Her grandfather was a farmer who also was pastor to a Mennonite congregation.
Buckwalter’s poise and winning ways weren’ always so apparent. She says she cried every night before her solo in a high school production of “West Side Story,” adding that she was a shy child. To compensate, the youngest of five girls built a huge family of “imaginary friends” for companionship, support and fun.
A vivid childhood memory is her family’s visit to Glacier National Park in Montana, which she called “belittling and empowering in a very memorable way.”
That more-than-a-touch of the poet in Buckwalter co-exists with a technical prowess and global dedication that won over the Udall Scholarship committee. Her peers elected her vice president and project coordinator of UB’s Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW). She helped organize the ESW’s national conference, enabling students from around the world the chance to discuss environmental problems that would make the heads of less environmentally aware students swim.
Her close-to-home credits include working on a smoothie cart powered by the sun, planting dozens of trees on campus and in the community, and weatherizing homes in Buffalo. Her current local project: exploring the feasibility of reusing water extracted from the mechanized composting process at UB.
Buckwalter witnessed the dangers of unsuitable waste disposal in Indonesia and lack of water quality controls, along with the impersonal and indiscriminate exploitation of poor families. Foreign companies have secured water rights there, making clean water too expensive to anyone but the very rich. Although repeatedly warned while in Indonesia to stop any water from entering her mouth she caught a digestive parasite that made her sick and easily fatigued for months.
Throughout it all, Buckwalter retains that romantic soul, citing the works of J.R.R. Tolkien as inspiration because of his “complex story lines and unusual heroes.”
“Esther Buckwalter is a professor's dream,” says James Jensen, professor of environmental engineering in UB’s Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering. “She has shown leadership on environmental issues on campus beyond her years. Rather than teach her, I often get out of her way so she can pursue engineered improvements to the environment.”
When asked for a story that shaped her values, Buckwalter pulls out an exotic encounter from the reservoir of adventures and travels.
“While I was in Indonesia, I got lunch at a makeshift roadside restaurant with an Indonesian co-worker’s husband,” Buckwalter says. “His English was a bit choppy, but we happily struggled along and conversed about ghosts and volcanoes and relationships. At one point, he asked me if I believed in reincarnation. I gave a vague answer about believing that people’s spirits live on in the people they affect, and he told me, ‘I believe in reincarnation. I think that maybe you are reincarnation of Indonesian person, and that’s why you’re here working with us and helping us.’
“I just thought it was one of the greatest things,” Buckwalter says. “To be sitting eating delicious food that may or may not have given me a digestive parasite, being told that my soul is probably from halfway across the world.”