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Environmental and social justice focus of immersion in Guatemala

| Judy Berthiaume

Molly Larson and Anna Timmerman may never look at a cup of coffee quite the same way after traveling to Guatemala as part of a Winterim immersion that included tours of coffee farms and homestays with coffee farmers.

The UW-Eau Claire students say seeing up-close how Guatemalans — including the coffee farmers — live day-to-day has them thinking about the world in a new way.

“We learned the entire process of creating a cup of coffee, from growing to harvesting to roasting to brewing,” says Larson, a sophomore environmental geography and German major from Eau Claire. “We also learned a lot about how climate change is affecting the coffee crop, and how this is putting these farmers' livelihoods in jeopardy.”

Time spent with coffee farmers was among the highlights of an immersion in Guatemala.

Time spent with coffee farmers was among the highlights of an immersion in Guatemala.

Assisting coffee farmers with their harvesting and spending time with the farmers’ families also was an eye-opening experience for Anna Timmerman, a junior human resource management major and Spanish for health professions minor from De Pere.

“The farmer who led my small group, who was about my age, wakes up every day and walks for an hour up the mountain to his plot of land,” says Timmerman, who describes the people of Guatemala as hardworking, kind, driven and dynamic. “He works all day in the field, but he also is a student studying computer science. After working all day, he starts his homework at 10 p.m.

“Hearing from this farmer really struck a chord with me. He spends most of his time working so he can not only support himself but also attend school.”

The interactions they had with these farmers, along with other experiences during the immersion, have them rethinking their day-to-day choices now that they are back in the United States, Timmerman and Larson say.

“It’s so easy to choose quick, easy and cheap over quality, especially if you do not know where your goods are coming from,” Timmerman says. “I drink coffee every day, but not once have I stopped to think about who harvested my coffee and how they are treated.

“This immersion has really pushed me to purchase fair trade items and to think about my contribution to a larger global issue.”

That kind of shift in thinking is exactly what the programs’ leaders want students to experience during the two-week immersion, which this year took 16 Blugolds to Central America in January.

The hope is that students leave the immersion having expanded their views and perspectives, says Renee Strehlau, the campus facilities planner who co-led the immersion.

“We also want them to critically think about the many systems at work in our own culture, and how those systems and each person’s own decisions and actions impact those systems and others around them,” Strehlau says.

For most students, including Larson and Timmerman, the homestays were an especially powerful part of the immersion experience, says Dr. Jeff DeGrave, UW-Eau Claire’s intercultural immersions coordinator and the co-leader of the Guatemalan immersion program.

Students stayed with local families, helping them with their household duties and domestic projects.

Through the days spent with these families, students gained an understanding of the differences of life in a small city in Guatemala compared to their own lives in the United States, DeGrave says.

“When we make deep connections with people from very different backgrounds, we can appreciate differences and help support those different from ourselves,” DeGrave says. “We can observe instead of judge and have conversations instead of disagreements.”

Emma Barnd (left) and Tabetha Stevens work on a service-learning project during their Winterim immersion in Guatemala.

Emma Barnd (left) and Tabetha Stevens work on a service-learning project during their Winterim immersion in Guatemala.

A service-learning project also was part of the immersion program, which gave students another opportunity to experience what life is like for many people living in Guatemala, DeGrave says.

For their service-learning project, the Blugolds worked with Ij’atz, a local coffee cooperative, to extend the exterior walls of its kitchen. The renovation will allow the women who work in the kitchen extra space to serve larger numbers of people, which will help bring additional income into the cooperative.

Students were taught to mix cement, lay cement bricks, add the mortar and build the metal infrastructure that supported the cement walls being constructed.

“They worked from morning until the evening for multiple days to construct the walls,” DeGrave says. “It was exhausting but meaningful physical labor. This project helped our students understand how much manual labor is involved in the everyday life of many people in Guatemala.”

The Blugolds also took cooking, weaving and sewing classes, helping them see the many skills Guatemalans possess that can easily be overlooked or underappreciated, DeGrave says, noting that students gained a better sense of how hard people there work every day to move their lives forward.

During the immersion, students focus on numerous topics relating to social and environmental justice, including farming; trade; sustainable organic farming; social dynamics within families, businesses and others; discrimination against women; environmental issues; and the poverty cycle.

An immersion built around environmental and social justice was exactly the kind of experience she was seeking, Larson says, noting that the Guatemalan immersion was all she hoped it would be.

“The entire immersion experience was incredibly powerful,” Larson says. “It made me even more passionate about issues like social and environmental justice and it motivated me to travel and continue to learn about new cultures as often as I can.

“It also reminded me to seek out stories that are different from my own, because this is how we learn and become more empathetic people.”

Timmerman, who also has participated in an immersion in Argentina, says the programs in other countries have given her opportunities to experience different cultures while also practicing her Spanish-speaking skills.

In addition, they helped her build connections with people in other parts of the world, as well as with UW-Eau Claire students, faculty and staff whom she might not otherwise have met, she says.

The many high-impact experiences available to Blugolds is among the reasons Larson and Timmerman say they chose to study at UW-Eau Claire.

“I wanted to take advantage of opportunities that the university gives its students through cultural immersion experiences,” Larson says, adding that she also is interested in UW-Eau Claire’s study abroad programs. “From this experience, I broadened my horizons and learned more about a different culture. I also learned about environmental issues that people outside of the U.S. face daily.”

Timmerman says she was nervous before her first immersion in Argentina but is grateful that spending time in Spanish-speaking countries is a requirement of her minor because it pushed her out of her comfort zone.

“I almost did not get on the plane,” Timmerman says of her first immersion. “I did not want to go at all, but I was required to go for my minor. By the end of the three weeks, I was trying to figure out how to extend the program so I could stay longer.

“Immersions are such an awesome way to experience a country. Through my immersions, I have learned so much about other cultures and have built incredible relationships with my host families.”

Her time in Guatemala also confirmed for her that she is following an academic path that aligns well with her passions and interests, Larson says.

While she’s not certain of her future career path, Larson now is considering working in environmental law.

“This immersion experience opened my eyes to the racial disparities in environmental protection, both in Guatemala and here in the U.S.,” Larson says. “This immersion gave me a new outlook on these issues and I now have a more well-rounded understanding of environmental justice.”

While she’s always loved to travel, participating in two immersions in different countries has given her confidence that she is capable of navigating travel and other cultures on her own, Timmerman says.

They also have her thinking a bit differently about her future career, Timmerman says.

“My experiences in my immersion programs have reinforced my love of travel,” Timmerman says. “In the future, I would love a job where I can travel, or possibly have the opportunity to live abroad.”

While immersion programs are designed to help students become more culturally aware, faculty and staff who lead programs like the one in Guatemala also take much from the experience, DeGrave says.

As they travel with their students, faculty and staff gain a better understanding of issues relating to race, gender, class and ethnicity, which helps them better meet the needs of all UW-Eau Claire students, he says.

“As equity, diversity and inclusivity are of paramount importance to the mission of UW-Eau Claire, allowing faculty and staff leaders the opportunity to challenge themselves and step outside of their own comfort zones often leads to greater understanding of issues that continue to reveal themselves on campus, in Eau Claire and across the country,” DeGrave says. 

Top photo caption: Blugolds (from left) Madison Seeger, Anna Timmerman and Haley Asuma spent time with a local Guatemalan farmer during a Winterim immersion.