Twenty Katies spend one month in Guatemala, take classes, make tortillas

Twenty students, two professors, a few trusty guides, a van roof topped with luggage, and one month in Guatemala. No, it’s not the start of a bad joke; it’s the start of a Global Search for Justice (GSJ) class that went to Guatemala this January.

Women’s Health and Work was the topic of this GSJ class. Juniors and seniors majoring in nursing, mathematics, exercise and sports science, anthropology, and everything in between visited health clinics, met with a midwife, and helped cook food.

GSJ classes abroad, like GSJ: Guatemala, are opportunities for students unable to go abroad for a full semester to experience travel as a student. Students with tight academic schedules or tight budgets find GSJ an appealing option.

Teresa Kuenhe ’15 is married, so she found three weeks of GSJ the only feasible option for her to study abroad. As a nursing student, the course topic seemed perfect.

“I love traveling, I love studying abroad,” Hannah Schaefer ‘15 said. “This has been my favorite J-term course of the three I’ve taken.”

Visiting a different country and culture can be disconcerting and overwhelming. Add a writing intensive core class focusing on global justice, and it’s easy to see how much learning and thinking went on in the three weeks students spent abroad.

The biggest shock for many students came only a few days into the class. After meeting youth living on the streets of Guatemala City, the class drove by the city garbage dump. The dump has been off limits to tourists since the documentary Recycled Life exposed the story of families working in the Guatemala City dump, but the class found a vantage point to overlook the dump.

Jill Mertz ’15 said that seeing the huge dump, with hundreds of vultures overhead, was shocking. For Ella Burnham ’16, experiencing the dump was what resonated the most with her out of the entire trip.

Learning about working conditions in the finca, or plantation, system was the most shocking moment for Kaydee Balzart ’16.

“We drink coffee like it’s water, and to hear the conditions of the workers, how much they got paid… It’s true modern slavery,” Balzart said.

Lack of workers’ rights was not the only aspect of Guatemalan life that stood out to Balzart. She noticed that the families and communities she met in Guatemala were extremely close and supportive of one another.

“We think they have nothing,” Balzart said of the Guatemalan people, “but they’re rich in the things that matter.”

K.D. Sengstock ’16 also noted patience and compassion in the people she met, especially the nurses at the national clinic the class visited, and the family at her home stay.

Students paired up for home stays (and two brave students went on their own) for two nights in the villages of Santa Catarina Palopó and San Antonio Palopó. Their objective: To work alongside the women. Students learned to make tortillas by slapping corn masa (dough) quickly between their hands for every meal. Other activities included weaving cloth, picking coffee beans, making bracelets, hoeing the garden, and gathering firewood from the mountain.

Nikki Healy ’15 and Jill Mertz assisted their home stay family with selling products in a stand on the street. After two days of this, they asked what they would be doing on their final day in Santa Catarina. Healy translated their home stay mother’s response: “Tomorrow we don’t sell in the street. Tomorrow we kill a chicken.”

And they did.

In addition to these experiences, GSJ students met with many speakers on the topics of women’s health and work, and applied their readings on social justice and the global economy to what they saw and heard in Guatemala.

Across the board, students of GSJ: Guatemala stretched out of their comfort zones. They tried new types of food, learned and practiced Spanish, and chopped firewood on the side of a mountain. They braved travel sickness, visited a garbage dump, and learned what it means to live without clean water. They dressed and cooked a chicken, asked tough questions, and listened to Guatemalans tell their stories. At the end of three weeks, students gained a new understanding of global justice.

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