Froylan Sifuentes was raised in Huejutla, Mexico, a region suffering from lack of water.

“I can no longer go swimming as I once did, because the rivers are drying up. We have to buy water by the truckload, which is expensive — and the water is dirty. You can’t drink it. You have to treat it before cooking. Even the water we wash with is brown.”

Not only does the region have little water, but there are few trees, too. “The wood is just disappearing because of population growth and unplanned growth of the city. Also, people burn the wood for cooking or sell it to make money,” says Sifuentes, who is compelled to improve the environment and one day plans to produce alternative fuels that do not produce CO2. “We’re destroying the life-supporting systems of our planet, and keep saying, ‘It’ll get better.’ How?”

Recently, the 21-year-old junior got a fellowship from MIT’s Public Service Center (PSC) to travel for three months to Tecpaco, Mexico. There, he implemented a reforestation and tree nursery plan that he hopes will lead to improved environmental sustainability and access to clean water.

Earlier, he and a classmate got another PSC grant to increase access to clean water in the Amazon rainforest town of Santa Ana in Ecuador, where the most serious health problem is lack of safe drinking water. There they helped the community build a five-meter dam, and trained community members to care for the water system.

“Without the dam, you can’t get water, not even dirty water,” says Sifuentes, who also led community meetings and wrote health booklets that were sent to each family. Now that a filtered water connection for the chlorinator is installed, the water flows from the reservoir into each family’s home.

This year, his latest effort is to create awareness of climate change on campus to motivate students to act. The idea is to focus the growing concern in the country about global warming and to create a national discussion about clean energy solutions, connecting students and citizens with political leaders.

Sifuentes, who is a Eugene and Margaret McDermott Scholar, says: “When I got into MIT, my mother said, ‘Don’t get too excited. If you don’t get financial aid, you can’t go.’

“I could never repay the McDermott family,” he says. “The only way I can begin to repay them is to get the most out of MIT and do good for society.

“With privilege comes responsibility,” he says. “It is completely my responsibility to extend my hand to other people.

“There are many people who don’t have the chance to continue with their education or go to MIT. I am lucky, but what about them?”