By RACHEL MANNING
Over this past spring break, 17 students from Dr. Dawn Bowen’s GEOG 360E class took a trip to Guatemala. There, they learned about conservation of cloud forests and the culture of the K’iche people.
While away, they spent four days learning at the Community Cloud Forest Conservation Center (CCFC) and teaching the children about ecological practices, and the next two days living with K’iche families in their homes.
“The coursework leading up to the trip provides the essential background that students need – an understanding of the Civil War, gender roles, the importance of education, agroecology, and deforestation, the last three of which is the focus of our trip,” said Dr. Bowen.
However, some of Dr. Bowen’s students shared that they felt that nothing could have possibly prepared them for what they’d experience in Guatemala.
“You can sit around and read articles and talk about it with your friends but it’s another thing to actually immerse yourself in the culture and I just wasn’t mentally prepared for that when I went,” said sophomore and geography major Bria Hickman.
Junior international affairs major Anna Krus agreed.
“I don’t think that there was anything that the class could have done more to prepare us. It’s still going to be sort of a culture shock- just being in a completely different environment doing something that I have never done before,” Krus said.
Another aspect that came as a surprise to the students was the ingenuity of the CCFC and the K’iche people. The CCFC is set up to be entirely sustainable, as they capture and reuse energy and compost all waste.
“I was really impressed with that sustainability factor. I’ve really been skeptical of things like that because you have to give up so many modern conveniences, but honestly, [the K’iche people] really didn’t,” said Krus. “We had to conserve energy [while staying with them], but it didn’t feel like we were sacrificing a lot.”
While at the CCFC, the UMW students helped teach the K’iche children all that they’d learned about conservation in Dr. Bowen’s class.
“We learn about strategies to help them improve their agricultural techniques and, most especially, focus on the younger generation who will have the most impact on the environment,” said Dr. Bowen.
“We would typically observe what [the children] were doing and participate in the activities that they were told to do, that we would help with planting, we would support them whenever they were playing games in class,” said Hickman.
However, what most seemed to impact the students was the homestays with local K’iche families.
“Homestays are a challenge, but they provide students the opportunity to experience the humanity of being with others who live very different lives from their own. While they did not share a language, they shared drawing, pantomimes, and lots of laughter,” said Dr. Bowen.
Students who participated in the trip echoed Dr. Bowens sentiments toward the K’iche people and shared their own personal experiences.
“When we went on the homestay, it struck me how little these people had and how joyful they were with what they had,” said Krus.
Hickman has been similarly affected since the trip. “I complain less. I feel so much more appreciative overall,” she said. “I genuinely have a broader outlook on life.”
While the CCFC and the K’iche people were able to give the UMW students a greater understanding of agro-ecology and conservation, the UMW students were also able to give the K’iche children a piece of their culture and confidence.
“Even though we weren’t able to verbally communicate with the kids, we got them to come out of their comfort zone and play soccer,” said Krus.
“The [teachers at the CCFC] took the front role and we were there for support and empowerment and giving them self-confidence because that’s something the community really lacks,” said Hickman.
This has been the seventh time GEOG 360E has been offered, and the seventh time UMW has gone to Guatemala and the CCFC. Dr. Bowen’s students were very glad to have had the opportunity to do it.
“It was incredible. I would definitely do it again,” said Hickman. Indeed, this is a truly unique opportunity for UMW students to experience and interact with their coursework and humanity in such a way.