June 12, 2009
From May 11-20, seven Rollins students participated in a field study in Guatemala with Assistant Professor of Political Science Dan Chong. The purpose of the field study was to help students learn first-hand about the challenges and opportunities involved in post-conflict development in Guatemala. The trip took place primarily in the rural town of San Martin Jilotepeque, a few hours northwest of Guatemala City. This area is home to a majority Mayan population who speak the Kachiquel language. The indigenous communities receive very little assistance from the national government, so they are often reliant upon private donations and support from abroad. The host organization, SHARE Guatemala, is funded primarily by the U.S. government and operates development projects in many impoverished parts of Guatemala in health, education, child nutrition, emergency assistance, infrastructure, microcredit and small business development.
During our time in Guatemala, we heard from a number of locals and organizations about their experiences during and after the war. We visited a small coffee farm and a few houses where women wove textiles by hand to sell at the local market.
But perhaps the most fulfilling aspect of our field study was the service component. We spent five days at a primary school in the rural village of Santo Domingo, mixing and pouring concrete for a school playground (which doubled as a community center, since there was no other public infrastructure in the community besides dirt roads). We also planted 100 pine trees around the school, and were able to spend a lot of our break time playing with some of the 90 children in the school.
I was tremendously proud of our group of seven students for their effort and the results we achieved collectively. Everyone had a wonderfully positive attitude. Mixing concrete is back-breaking work, and our first task was to carry the 90-pound bags of cement mix up to the school. We were all stunned when Megan Munro lifted several bags by herself. Zac Starkey was a consistently hard worker, earning him the nickname “Fuerte” among the local children. Alexandra Pearson and Jorge Aguilar, both fluent Spanish speakers, were always mobbed by children asking them questions about the U.S. whenever they took a break. Jake Steward and Arie Groenveld wheeled dozens of heavy wheelbarrow loads of gravel and sand up the muddy ramp leading to the school, and arm-wrestled or played soccer with the kids in their free time. And Monica McNulty, following the affectionately-named “Concrete Nazi’s” detailed instructions, became an expert in just how much sand, gravel, cement mix, and water were required to produce a solid square of concrete.
The five days of mixing concrete and planting trees was probably the most strenuous physical activity that many of us had experienced in a long time. We were exhausted at the end of each day, our clothes were filthy, and after playing some card games each night, we crashed in our rooms before getting up early again the next day. Our efforts ultimately paid off, however, as we completed more of the playground than anyone expected us to finish. (SHARE projects are designed so that volunteers do not complete the entire project, thereby requiring the community to donate their own time and “buy into” the project.)
On our last day in Santo Domingo, virtually everyone from the community gathered at the school to thank our group for donating the materials and the labor to give them a place to gather and play. They put on a beautiful closing ceremony for us, performing traditional Mayan dances and Catholic rituals, and giving us each a hand-woven certificate of thanks. After a brief piñata party, we were deeply moved as all the children and parents embraced us before we left.
After several days of hard manual labor, we had some time for traditional tourist activities as well. We stayed in Antigua for two nights, and visited some Mayan ruins and a large coffee plantation. We rode zip lines through the trees down a mountainside, and hiked an active volcano (we got within a few dozen feet of a river of flowing red lava!).
This was a fulfilling, fun, and transformative trip for the students and for me. I feel fortunate to be able to lead field studies like this through Rollins.
--Assistant Professor of Political Science Dan Chong