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Distinguished Alumna and Alumnus Award

Marla Smith-Nilson

Marla Smith-Nilson '94 M.S.

Marla Smith-Nilson is notable for her positive impact on water and sanitation initiatives across the globe. She is the founder and executive director of Water 1st International, which helps poor communities build and independently maintain water supply and sanitation systems. Over the past three decades, her work has brought clean water and sanitation to hundreds of thousands of people in Latin America, Asia and Africa.

Her approach to this work is rooted in the belief that strong grassroots connections are essential to success. Her projects always include partner organizations staffed with local specialists in engineering, community development and public health education. Water, sanitation and hygiene education are integrated to maximize health benefits. Communities are empowered to solve their own water supply and sanitation problems, helping to ensure longevity and sustainability of solutions.

Smith-Nilson’s work in water began at Carolina as a master’s student in Environmental Sciences and Engineering, when she co-founded WaterPartners International (now water.org) with a fellow student. Since then, she has distinguished herself as both an accomplished engineer and a dedicated humanitarian. Countless people live better lives today because of her efforts.