Ohio Northern University engineering student Vini Vieira de Souza.

Serendipity brought civil engineering student Vini Vieira de Souza from Brazil to Northwest Ohio, where at every turn he’s encountered people with an Ohio Northern University connection who are as committed to helping him succeed as he is to succeeding.

This summer, his journey brought him to Wessler Engineering in Bluffton, Ohio where three ONU alums are showing him that relationship-building — that distinctive ONU attribute — is an excellent foundation not just for college, but for life

A 5,000-mile journey

Souza grew up in an impoverished neighborhood known as a “favela” in the city of Sao Paulo, the fourth most populous city in the world. His mother worked long hours as a housekeeper and sacrificed her own needs to provide food and necessities for Souza and his two older brothers. Growing up, Souza attended school from 7 p.m. until midnight so that he could work during the day. U.S. television shows, with images of happy children boarding yellow school buses and kids competing on sports teams, offered him a tantalizing glimpse of another life. People in the U.S., he says, take these opportunities for granted, but to him, they seemed like incredible blessings. He often wondered: What would it be like to experience these things? His speculation morphed into a determination to travel abroad.

“I told myself that it’s going to be hard, but that doesn’t mean I can’t do it,” he says. “And the minute I made the decision to do it, is the minute I started learning.”
And learn he did, navigating the complex process of becoming a high school international exchange student all on his own. To obtain the funds he needed, he saved 90 percent of the income from his job. But it still wasn’t enough, so he turned to crowdfunding.

“The biggest challenge I faced was getting other people to believe in something that I believed in,” he says.

To get buy-in from strangers for his dream of studying in the U.S., he brainstormed a plan. For every donation he received, he would offer something in return—a handwritten note; a picture of him next to Lake Erie when he arrived in the U.S.; a blood donation; an hour spent playing with children in a local orphanage. His idea worked. Over 1,000 people donated to help him come to the U.S., and he repaid each donor with a gesture of goodwill.

Souza ended up at Spencerville High School in Northwest Ohio through serendipity — his host mother chose him out of a pool of 100 applicants. For the first time in his life he got to ride a school bus and participate in organized sports. He excelled at both football and track and field, and even made it to the state track meet. He also perfected his English, as he knew only snippets of the language gleaned from U.S. television shows and popular music.

Loving every minute of his senior year in the U.S., Souza longed to be able to attend college in the U.S. His host mother generously offered him continued lodging if he was accepted into a nearby university. Souza’s track teammate, Chris Picker, BSME ’22, suggested he check out the college that he was planning to attend — Ohio Northern University.

“I knew I wanted to become an engineer because I’ve always loved solving problems,” says Souza. “When I visited ONU, I was so impressed with the school and community and knew it was the right place for me.” Financial assistance in the form of grants and scholarships, including ONU’s Yousef K. Shuhaibar Scholarship, helped pave the way for Souza to attend the Ohio Northern's T. J. Smull College of Engineering.

Life-changing relationships

The small Ohio towns of Spencerville, Ada and Bluffton couldn’t be more different from the bustling metropolis of 12 million people that Souza calls home in Brazil. But he has wholeheartedly embraced the quiet life and welcoming people.

At ONU, everyone he’s encountered, from professors to coaches to peers, are dedicated to helping him grow in knowledge and skills, he says. “The engineering program is awesome. I thought that being a foreign student would make things a bit different, but everyone treats me so well and they are very interested in learning from me about how things are done in Brazil.”

As a summer intern at Wessler Engineering, Souza has discovered that the traits that define the ONU community — personal relationships, providing a helping hand, service over self — don’t stop at the campus borders. These traits continue to guide ONU alumni in the professional realm.

The Bluffton, Ohio office of Wessler is home to three ONU alumni from three different decades — Ryan Brauen, BSCE ’05, vice president; Eric Davis, BA ’94, business development and client advocate; and Austin Wurm, BSCE ’19, civil engineer. They have taken Souza under their wings, striving to “complete the circle” and prepare him for the professional world. “Today’s intern becomes tomorrow’s employee,” says Brauen, “and it’s just a privilege to have the opportunity to mentor a fellow Polar Bear.”

Davis adds that the “interest, intelligence and inquisitiveness” that Souza has brought to the office has been refreshing. “I learned about the importance of building relationships from mentors at ONU, and I have centered my entire career around doing just that,” he says. “Having had such exceptional mentors at Northern, I’m over-the-moon excited to be able to be a mentor for someone else.”

Learning in the field

One of Souza’s personal goals is to experience the different fields of civil engineering before graduation. This summer, thanks to Wessler, he’s diving into the nuts and bolts of water infrastructure engineering.

Based in Indiana, Wessler specializes in wastewater, drinking water and storm water projects. Unlike visible infrastructure like roadways and electric grids, “wet infrastructure” is mostly hidden and, therefore, out of sight, out of mind, explained Brauen.

“We turn on the tap and assume the water is safe to drink. We flush the toilet and don’t think about what happens next, unless there is a problem,” he says.
 Increasingly, there are problems garnering public attention. These range from deteriorating and aging infrastructure, to street flooding after strong storms, to newly-identified contaminants, called PFAS, showing up in drinking water. Wessler engages in the critical work of helping cities and towns navigate and fix these engineering challenges before they become huge issues.

“It’s very fulfilling work because it helps with the general health and welfare of the public,” says Brauen.

Souza is getting a broad education at Wessler. He spent four weeks in Piqua, Ohio, assisting Wurm with inspecting more than 350 manholes for a comprehensive report and rehabilitation project cost summary. He’s visited numerous water treatment plants and assisted with the design and layout of a valve vault and sanitary sewer lift station. He’s learning how to use ESRI’s ArcGIS Pro, and he’s even attended professional conferences with Wessler engineers.

“I don’t feel like an intern, because they’ve treated me so well,” says Souza. “I’ve met so many great people who have taught me a great many things.”

By exposing him to every aspect of the water and wastewater industry, Wurm says his hope is that Souza can piece together what he’s learned at ONU in the classroom and what he’s experienced at Wessler in order to determine the direction he wants to take in his professional life.

Set to graduate in May 2023, Souza’s biggest hope is for his mom to be able to travel to the U.S. and attend his commencement ceremony. Eventually, he’ll have to decide if he will return to Brazil immediately after graduation or stay in the U.S. for up to three years on a work visa. He is often homesick, although he communicates with his mom and brothers every day.
His ONU and Wessler friends, of course, hope he’ll consider sticking around, but they know that wherever he lands he’ll be successful. “Vini’s story is one of courage and challenge,” says Davis. “He’s made us all stop and reflect on our own stories, and we’ve learned so much from him this summer.”  Without a doubt, added Wurm, “Vini has a bright future ahead of him.”