Over the course of this past Winterim session, I had the opportunity to travel to various cities within Guatemala to learn about social and environmental justice among the local communities. While there, our group built personal relationships with local coffee farmers and learned about the arduous process of coffee production. For a portion of the trip, we lived with the families and participated in their daily activities, including working in the fields, preparing traditional meals, and educating one another on our own histories and cultures. Amidst all the hard work, we would occasionally take time off to tour historically significant sights, hike up volcanoes, cool down under waterfalls, or learn about the trades and customs of the many indigenous communities in the area.
While in Guatemala, our group mainly worked with the organization De La Gente, but also collaborated with the San Lucas Toliman Mission and toured Project Safe Passage — organizations striving to aid those who are struggling within their community. We worked together with San Lucas Toliman to provide housing and stoves to several families in the community. Project Safe Passage guided us on a tour of a school created to educate the impoverished children in a community in which many of the adults work in the city dump, sifting through garbage to look for items that can be resold and recycled. While touring the school, we learned that the library was in desperate need of intermediate level chapter books for the students. A fellow student, faculty member and I decided we wanted to help the organization solve this problem. Together, we were able to raise $450 to purchase fun, educational books, written in Spanish, for the students. The book project was a great way to stay connected with the group of students I have grown so close to from the trip, while also staying connected to the country that I have grown to love.
The book project isn’t the only way that I have been able to bring my study abroad experience into my daily life here at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. A group of several students and I decided that, as a result of everything we learned about the coffee trade while in Guatemala, we wanted to expand our knowledge even further by conducting a research study for UW-Eau Claire's Celebration of Excellence in Research and Creative Activity. Our study explores trade models such as fair trade and direct trade, and how these models impact everyone from the farmer who grows the beans to the consumer enjoying the finished product.
Because there's a homestay component, a common misconception is that students who choose to study abroad in Guatemala need to know Spanish. Fortunately, this is not the case, and the experience is accessible and rewarding regardless of prior experience. Every homestay family was equipped with a capable translator and, as a Spanish education major, I had the opportunity to translate for the other students in my homestay. This opportunity was the highlight of my experience as it was equally challenging and rewarding. I gained a great deal of satisfaction when I was effectively able to communicate with others in their native language. My love for the Spanish language was deepened, and my desire to continue mastering it was strengthened.
My study abroad experience has had a huge impact on my life and will continue to do so in the future. I will always cherish the relationships built with other UWEC students as well as the amazingly kind and generous people of Guatemala. The number of experiences, wealth of knowledge and personal growth that occurred during my two weeks in Guatemala is something that I will never forget. When starting college as a freshman, my top goals for my college experience were to push myself outside of my comfort zone, experience new cultures, meet people with vastly different backgrounds from myself and travel outside the country. I am proud to say that my Winterim study abroad experience in Guatemala allowed me to accomplish all of these goals — and then some.
Photo caption: UW-Eau Claire students Ashley Pike (center) and Hannah Apold (right) work with a coffee farmer in Guatemala. (Photo by UW-Eau Claire student/photographer Heidi Giacalone.)