CORVALLIS - A chance meeting on a crowded, noisy train in Peru between a prominent Oregon State University alumnus and a young Peruvian student has helped to make a dream come true.
Jim Poirot, a 1953 civil engineering graduate from OSU and former chairman of the board of CH2M HILL - one of the world's most successful engineering firms - was traveling with his wife, Raeda, a few years ago to attend a friend's wedding in Lima, Peru. But they missed their train near Machu Picchu, and wound up sitting squeezed onto the steps of the last train of the day, which was packed beyond capacity with chattering students from an all-girls Catholic high school in Lima.
Several of the students insisted that the couple take their seats inside the train car. Trying out their English, the students discovered the man was an engineer - and one of the young women, Patricia Abon, said that her dream was to become an engineer, too. Now, two years later, she's studying computer engineering at OSU and refers to the engineering executive and his wife as her American grandparents.
"The girls on the train joked about adopting us as their grandparents," Poirot said. "The next morning we just happened to see them on the streets of Cusco, and they ran up to us, calling 'Grandma! Grandpa!'"
Poirot gave Abon his business card, and when he and Raeda, who is also an OSU alumnus, returned to the United States, they found two e-mails from her waiting. "She was the one who took the initiative to continue the contact and made it very clear that she wanted to become an engineer," Poirot said.
The Poirots helped Abón apply for admission and scholarships at OSU, and sponsored her visa application. Everything clicked and she enrolled last fall, funded by a prestigious Provost's Scholarship and an International Cultural Service Program Scholarship.
"During her first quarter at OSU she struggled a little, the second quarter she did better, and the third she got straight A's," Poirot says proudly.
Paty, as the Poirot's fondly call Abón, visits their Roseburg home during holidays and school breaks. "And she still calls us grandma and grandpa," Raeda Poirot says.
This past summer Abón worked as an intern doing computer engineering for OSU's new Tsunami Wave Basin, part of the research cluster called the Kiewit Center for Infrastructure and Transportation. In addition to computers, her other interests include dance, basketball, yoga, tae-kwondo, and dog obedience.
"I like to develop many areas of my life," she says. "Not only my career."
One of the nation's most respected engineering leaders, Poirot graduated from OSU in 1953 and was the 35th employee of CH2M HILL when he joined the company that same year. He quickly moved up the ranks to ultimately serve as chairman of the board before his retirement in 1995.
Poirot first met Raeda in eighth grade. They started dating while at Roseburg High School, and married after his junior year at OSU, where Jim was studying civil engineering and Raeda business administration.
Poirot has also served as president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, vice president of the Paris-based World Federation of Engineering Organizations, and as a founding board member of the World Engineering Partnership for Sustainable Development. He is a member of the National Academy of Engineers, and received an honorary doctoral degree from OSU this year in recognition of his engineering leadership and involvement in worldwide sustainability initiatives, including the Earth Charter.
In 2000, he participated in launching the Earth Charter in The Hague, Netherlands, speaking at a ceremony attended by many environmental leaders, including Mikhail Gorbachev.
"Some of my most satisfying work has been helping transfer sustainable technologies to developing countries," Poirot said.
And thanks to their generosity and compassion - and a chance meeting on a crowded train - the Poirot's have helped transfer their love of engineering to Abón, who says she hopes to keep her "grandfather's" passion for engineering alive in her native Peru.
Abon plans to get a graduate degree before returning to Lima, where she can "make positive changes in my country." Her dream is to found and grow a company "to help lower the unemployment rate among my people," she says.