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The Blue & Gray Press | August 23, 2019

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Geography students give back for spring break

Geography students give back for spring break


When most college students hear the words “spring break,” images of sandy beaches, sunny skies and awesome parties come to mind. But for 13 students, spring break this year meant traveling to a third world country.

Geography professor Dawn Bowen led students to Guatemala for the second time. For a part of the trip, students got to participate in a home stay and lived with families on an isolated Mayan mountaintop village with no modern accommodations.

Students who went on the trip were signed up for a three-credit geography course that meets once a week. The class gave students an opportunity to learn about Guatemala’s history, including its long Civil War and the 1980’s genocide, in which the majority of the Mayan people were killed. The class also taught basic Q’eqchi’ which is the language of the surviving Mayans.

The focus of the trip was to help the Mayans through sustainable development. The Mayans are a poor society, not only because of lack of electricity and running water, but also because of rampant malnutrition and undernourishment.

Junior Mohammad Mesbahi saw this first-hand: he learned upon arrival to his host family that one of their children had just died of starvation.

“I was so surprised at the level of poverty the villagers were suffering from in the 21st century. It was very humbling and eye-opening,” said Mesbahi.

Small-scale development is the key to ending poverty and hunger. Students learned about agro-ecology, a method of development, in the class and got to see it in Guatemala.

Agro-ecology helps impoverished societies without modern technology rise out of poverty. Students had the opportunity to learn about and see different methods of agro-ecology.

“Much of our focus was learning about specific projects, from growing fruit trees and trees native to the forest in nurseries to how animal manure is composted for organic fertilizer,” said Bowen. “We also delivered two sheep to a family in a remote village who will be able to use the manure to fertilize their crops and improve yields as an alternative to purchasing chemical fertilizer. We also visited one woman who had received both rabbits and sheep, and had also planted fruit trees, and was very proud to show us her success.”

The trip helped fund scholarship programs for girls, who usually are less educated than boys in Mayan society. According to Bowen, young women who work for 25 days in agro-ecology projects can earn scholarships of $150 to attend school.

“My students are contributing the funds for one scholarship as a class, and several have chosen to fund additional scholarships on their own,” said Bowen. “I have agreed to match their contributions, so by the end of the semester, we hope to provide about 10 scholarships.”

During their stay in the village, students found interacting with the Mayan children to be one of the most memorable experiences.

“The kids were really shy at first and just stared at us, then ran away, but soon we began playing tag and drawing pictures and playing soccer and Frisbee with them,” said junior Amy Leap.

Mesbahi was also struck by the children’s enthusiasm.

“My most memorable experience from the trip was as soon as I got to my home stay and put down my backpack, all my little host brothers started going through my things,” he said. “They were so curious to see all the things I had, some of which they had never seen. Everyone was curious to see the pictures on my digital camera.”

Despite the hardships of the home stay, the students who went on the trip found it to be a rewarding experience.

“The trip surpassed my expectations because it was incredible. The week was packed with sights, people and experiences,” Leap said. “I also had no idea how beautiful the country was.”


  1. Dawn Bowen

    As the leader of the trip, I find, unfortunately, that I must correct many of the factual errors that were corrected once, but must be corrected again. The hike to the village took a little more than an hour, not days. The Maya with whom we worked and whose language we learned a bit of are the Q’eqchi’, not the Quiche’. The Maya are poor because they have been excluded from the political process for more than 500 years, have very little land, and are both exploited and deprived by the dominant society. My students had an opportunity to give back by teaching young Q’eqchi’ scholarship recipients English in preparation for their trip to Canada in the fall.
    Dawn Bowen
    Associate Professor of Geography