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Social work majors volunteer and observe Guatemalan culture during immersion trip

February 24, 2012
 Guetemala - McIntosh, Hay
Senior social work majors Jessi McIntosh and Victoria Hay spent three weeks volunteering, observing and learning about life in the remote areas of Guatemala as part of an international immersion project. (Photo credit: Vanda Galen)
EAU CLAIRE — Crowded, noisy rides in "chicken buses" and long walks down dirt roads took two University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students and the social workers they were shadowing into the remote villages of Guatemala during a Winterim immersion project.

"It was very humbling," senior social work major Jessi McIntosh said as she described sitting on dirt floors in tiny houses while women cooked over open fires. "It was interesting to learn about the lifestyle and the issues these populations face. These families are dealing with things like cancer and diabetes while living in very difficult conditions."

McIntosh, senior social work major Victoria Hay and Dr. Vanda Galen, chair of the UW-Eau Claire social work department, spent three weeks in Guatemala in January volunteering, observing and learning about life in the remote areas of the Central American country. They also gathered information for a research project that examines the motivations and learning experiences of international volunteers in Guatemala.

"Introducing our social work students to another culture and allowing them an up-close view of issues that are related to poverty were part of this project," Galen said. "We also wanted to do research to help us understand if these kinds of experiences are truly transformational. We want to know if developing a new perspective or understanding a different culture will help change a volunteer's worldview."

 Guetemala - Hay with coffee
Victoria Hay tries her hand at grinding coffee beans during an international immersion experience in Guatemala.(Photo credit: Vanda Galen)
Seeing firsthand how families live in the remote and poverty-stricken villages was an eye-opening experience, Hay and McIntosh said. Observing how Guatemalan social workers interact with the families also was surprising, the future social workers said.

For example, after a long trip via bus and foot to reach a village, the Guatemalan social worker asked just a few questions about each family's health and well-being before moving on to the next house, said McIntosh, of Cedarburg.

"It was hard to be an observer and to not give advice," McIntosh said of seeing how the social worker's actions differed from what would be expected in America. "But I needed to keep my cultural biases to myself. The way we've been taught here is not always the best in other cultures. It was interesting to see how social workers who work with families in these conditions of extreme poverty address the issues the families face."

Hay noted that the social worker she shadowed rarely went into a home. Instead, she met with families in the streets or courtyard areas.

 Guatemala - Woman
Two UW-Eau Claire social work majors say interacting with Guatemalans and hearing them talk about the history and culture of the Central American country was among the highlights of their three-week immersion experience. (Photo credit: Vanda Galen)
Here we have appointments and worry so much about privacy," said Hay, of West Salem. "They were willing to talk about the things we consider private in the middle of a busy street. It was a culture shock to see that talking with a social worker was such a casual thing."

While it was a different approach, it was clear the social workers knew how their clients wanted to be helped, and they respected them enough to do it their way, McIntosh said.

"While it's tempting to step in, we can't always do things for other people," McIntosh said. "It's a challenge when you want to help in a certain way yet you need to recognize that the person you are working with is the expert on their own life."

The students began their three-week immersion experience in Antigua, where they studied at a Spanish language school and visited service projects of Common Hope, an organization established by a Minnesota couple that has served the country for three decades.

A highlight of their weeklong stay in Antigua was helping distribute school packets to 2,000 youth who are sponsored by Common Hope, Hay and McIntosh said. The packs included uniforms, shoes, notebooks and other school essentials.

The UW-Eau Claire students also brought additional supplies, collected by Eau Claire high school students, for use by the children involved with Common Hope's programs. The Menomonie Street Dental clinic in Eau Claire also provided toothbrushes to be distributed.

The last two weeks of the students' immersion project were spent at the San Lucas Toliman Mission, which is connected to the New Ulm Catholic diocese in Minnesota. The mission has helped meet many needs in the region, including building homes, establishing a coffee cooperative, and developing clean water and sanitation facilities.

 Guetemala - McIntosh, Hay, Galen
Social work majors Victoria Hay, Jessi McIntosh and Dr. Vanda Galen, chair of the social work department, (left to right) interviewed more than two dozen international volunteers during their time in Guatemala. The student-faculty research team is examining the motivations and learning experiences of international volunteers. (Photo credit: Vanda Galen)
At San Lucas the philosophy is that volunteers are there not to help but to learn, the students said. Learning about the region's history and culture helped them better understand the issues facing the people living there, they said.

It's especially important for future social workers to recognize the importance of understanding the history and cultural norms of a region they may serve, Galen said.

"Indigenous Guatemalans can present an idealized view of poverty — they seem happy, gracious and grateful," Galen said. "One could leave believing that material things — safe water, secure homes, adequate health care — are not that important. But it must be understood that poverty takes years off their lives, results in early death of their children and limits their life chances. Social workers need to be involved in working for social justice so one group is not relegated to a lifetime of disadvantage."

Hay said she was especially moved by a Guatemalan woman who talked with volunteers about her experiences during the Guatemalan civil war.

"She shared with us some of the hardest moments of her life, including her husband's kidnapping," Hay said, noting that sharing such personal information with strangers is not the norm among Guatemalans. "The things I worry about aren't that important compared with what happened to this woman, who lost her family but has since saved others."

Volunteers from many universities throughout the world come to San Lucas and the language school in Antigua, which provided Hay and McIntosh with plenty of opportunities to interview volunteers of varying ages for their research project. The research team completed 26 interviews for their project, which is related to transformational learning through volunteering.

 Guetemala - Coffee beans
Coffee beans were ready for picking during the three weeks two social work majors and their professor were in Guatemala for an immersion project. (Photo credit: Vanda Galen)
A commitment to transformational learning is central to the UW-Eau Claire Centennial Plan," Galen said of the importance of the research project to UW-Eau Claire. "This project will add to the understanding of how international travel, volunteering and service-learning contribute to changing habits of mind and point of view, the two dimensions of frame of reference."

Since multicultural understanding is essential for social work practitioners, the research also may inform curricular changes in social work and it may lead to expanded service-learning opportunities in Guatemala, Galen said.

The Guatemalan immersion experience received financial support from UW-Eau Claire's Center for International Education's International Fellowship Program. The fellowship program is funded by the university's Blugold Commitment. In 2010 the Student Senate and the UW System Board of Regents supported increasing the amount of differential tuition UW-Eau Claire students pay, with the new dollars funding projects that enhance student learning.

For details about the Guatemalan project, contact Dr. Vanda Galen at 715-836-5366 or, Jessi McIntosh at or Victoria Hay at



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