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Guatemala: Do’s and Don’ts

According to the Institute of International Education 2017 Open Doors report, 325,339 American students earned academic credit while studying abroad in 2015/16. Another 23,125 U.S. students were involved in non-credit work including internships and volunteer programs abroad.

After a recent credit-bearing, service learning experience in Guatemala with Chris Hirschler, Ph. D. and eight Monmouth University students, I’ve learned that there are many things to consider when embarking on travel associated with an international service-learning course.

Guatemala Public Health (HE 376), involved extensive research and preparation in order to successfully serve people in Guatemala. We served in homes (where we built bunk beds for families and assembled water filters), public hospitals, a women’s domestic violence shelter (Nuevos Horizontes/New Horizons). We cleaned up garbage, distributed water and other items to hospital patients, fed starving animals, and gave health lessons. We also spent time experiencing the local culture through food and conversations, listened to medical and animal lectures, hiked Pacaya Volcano, and enjoyed luxuries like swimming pools, hot tubs, and spas. The following advice comes from my own experience and the perceptions of others based on conversations and interviews.

DO research your opportunities. Find out what is available in terms of destination(s), the goals and objectives, length of travel, supervising faculty, size of the group that will travel, requirements to enroll and travel, the cost of the trip, including obtaining a passport and acquiring the necessary vaccinations.

DO NOT choose a service course or trip because of the destination alone. An interesting tropical location does not speak for the goals and objective of the trip, intentions and experience of the supervising faculty, or the overall experience. Speak directly with supervising faculty members to understand their expectations, intentions, and goals. If you don’t like the faculty member, you’re not going to like the trip (even if you’re on a beautiful tropical beach). Hirschler emphasizes the role of faculty supervisors in international service learning: “Faculty spend an enormous amount of time thoughtfully constructing the coursework and experiences abroad. For example, I design the course so that students critically examine their motives, become culturally sensitive so that they maximize their positive impact and minimize harmful effects, and approach the experience as a reciprocal relationship in which they discover the numerous similarities between themselves, their classmates, professor, and the individuals they work with in the destination country.”

DO build relationships with your service group before you travel. This includes students, faculty, and interpreters. Having pre-established connections with your group can help build your confidence during travel and sheds an unnecessary layer of anxiety about traveling with strangers. Besides, you’ll probably be sleeping, eating, and using the bathroom in close proximity to your group members—you might as well get to know them before the weirdness begins.

DO allow adequate time to pack and prepare for your trip. This includes creating (or asking for) a packing list, keeping notes and lists of important items, and planning your finances appropriately so you can purchase the things you need. Further, allow yourself time to mentally prepare for your travel. I found it helpful to watch videos, practice the local language (Spanish), and search details such as the length of my flight and a map of my destination country. Also consider speaking to students that have previously traveled with this service course—ask questions, address concerns, ask about “highs and lows” of the trip. The more you know, the less confusion and anxiety you’ll have during your trip.

DO NOT “export” your own bad habits. Be mindful of the example you set while you are abroad. For example, littering and smoking are two habits that you will not want to bring abroad. Elaine Banting, one of our Guatemala Public Health students, exemplifies the importance of mindfulness about bad habits in her successful effort to quit smoking before traveling abroad. She says, “To make a life-altering decision like [quitting smoking] reminds me of the positive impact I wanted to make in Guatemala. I made so many amazing connections with people in Guatemala and I didn’t want my unhealthy habit to affect the people that I came to love.”

DO have meaningful conversations with the people you meet in your time abroad. Sometimes, the best way to understand the “bigger picture” of a situation is to have personal, individual conversations. At the women’s shelter, we were given a general basis for how the women and children ended up in their situation—they were the victims of some form of domestic abuse and entered the shelter for their own protection. Without sitting down to speak to a resident of the shelter, “Tina”, I would never have understood how different each story of abuse really was. “Tina” is a U.S. citizen residing at Nuevos Horizontes for a single reason: her abusive partner burned her passport and other documents to create a system of immigration complications that restrict her from returning home. “I feel imprisoned here. This is not where I belong. I want to go home to America.” Speaking to individuals like “Tina” show that we don’t always understand issues with attention to details like individual differences. Take the time to understand these details.

For privacy, the names of women residing at the shelter have been changed.

DO allow yourself to learn from the local community members. Do not make the mistake of thinking that you are the only teacher. You will undoubtedly learn more than you teach in your time abroad, so shape your expectations accordingly. During our time at Nuevos Horizontes, the young women and children performed a dance for our group, to reciprocate the effort we spent teaching health lessons and to showcase the beauty of Guatemalan culture. Maria, a social worker at the shelter, explained “[The women] were very excited to present for you. They have spent a lot of time preparing.” It is important to remember to receive as much knowledge as you give— the status of “student” goes beyond the classroom.

DO understand the lasting impact of an international service experience. You will meet new people, make new friends, and fall in love with a new culture. You will also bear witness to suffering. You will see things that you don’t expect, or things that you haven’t ever experienced or imagined. These things might affect you emotionally—understand these possibilities so you can prepare. Hirschler explains the lasting impact of international service: “Students realized that they could have a significant impact on individuals and families, and how inspiring it is to experience the resolve of people who are financially impoverished, but who have an abundance of gratitude, sense of community, and generosity.” Most importantly, understand that your service trip will change your life: your perspective will change, your understanding of the world will broaden, your appreciation for your own life will grow, and you’ll never forget the beauty of the culture or the kindness of the people you meet.

PHOTO COURTESY of Megan Conchar

As published in Monmouth University publication The Outlook: : Volume 90 (Fall 2017 – Spring 2018) Published: 04 April 2018 Written by ELAINE BANTING |

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