Class opens eyes – and minds – to Guatemala

Community Service Learning in the Hispanic World: Guatemala – History, Culture and People in Context is an interdisciplinary community service learning (CSL) course on – and in – Guatemala taught by Modern Languages and Literatures professor Alena Robin.

The course provides students with an opportunity to learn about Guatemalan society, culture and history, but also about themselves by serving in an international social and cultural setting. The course deals with issues related to the rich history and culture of Guatemala and offer an in-depth look at a number of contemporary social issues.

In addition to classroom study, the course includes a three-week community-service trip to Guatemala, where students experience first-hand the lives of the people and communities studies. The class partners with the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, located in the city of Quetzaltenango.

Western News asked two students from that class – Dilani Logan and Madison Price – to reflect on that trip. Here’s what they had to say:

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By Dilani Logan

When I first learned about Spanish 3500 in October 2013, I had little knowledge of Guatemala aside from its name – I didn’t know of its main cultures, violent history or beautiful mountain landscapes. However, not knowing sparked a desire to take the course.

From the moment I arrived in Guatemala City, I knew my vision of the country was flawed. I was surprised by how ‘modern’ it was. I did not expect to see many familiar businesses – McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Shell and Wal-Mart – in Central America. However, after our first excursions to the Xela market/city square on the first Sunday, and the cemetery on the first Monday, I came to see Guatemala as a fusion of old and new, traditional and modern.



The Miguel Angel Asturias Academy, located in the city of Quetzaltenango, made a large impression on me during this trip. Having the opportunity to meet with students and staff, and see how welcoming and open they were with us, was a great feeling.

When we met academy principal Jorge Chojolán, and he told us about his childhood and his vision for the school and for his country, I was drawn in.

Being around Jorge, and seeing his positive attitude and enthusiasm to impact future generations of his country, is inspiring to me. It is more than apparent he and his family funnel all their efforts into the school and want to do whatever they can to help these kids.

Furthermore, Doña Silvia, who prepared our meals throughout the week, amazed me with how quickly she made our group of seven her own. Her family was so genuine. I felt that her family was reflection of how helpful, accepting, welcoming and kind the community was.

Throughout my three weeks at the school, I worked with Jacobo Bertillsson, a 21-year-old volunteer from Sweden, in art and English classes with preprimaria (kindergarten), primario primaria (Grade 1) and segundo primaria (Grade 2). The instant acceptance of me by the students was extremely heart warming. Although they didn’t know me, they often greeted me with a giant hug as soon as I entered the room and another when it was time to leave.

The students were so excited to learn. It was great to see how simple things such as new art techniques, or learning how to say, “What is your name,” were met with such enthusiasm. It was also empowering to see how unafraid students were to take risks and make mistakes, and be drawn back to my own childhood schooling experiences.

I also taught songs to the class, which was very much out of my comfort zone. However, I was thrilled to see how excited they were to learn songs of different languages. By the end of the three weeks, many of them had the lyrics to Do-Re-Mi down pat – one of the most fulfilling experiences of the trip for me. It felt like an exchange of cultures. I received the opportunity to share the songs I had grown up with in Canada; they shared their own traditional songs with me.

Throughout my schooling, I learned reading from a variety of sources and viewpoints will really enhance your education. I believe that is why, prior to this experience, I thought I had a spot-on vision of Guatemala in my head.

Through Spanish 3500, we explored Guatemala through so many different mediums.

I discovered no matter how much reading you do, or how many pictures you see, you can never assume you know the full story without experience. And even with experience, you only know as much as you’ve been exposed to.

There were such parallels with what we learned and what I saw, so I will definitely go forward with trying to be increasingly open-minded.

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By Madison Price

Guatemala was a cultural enlightenment for me.

Learning about the country in the classroom setting, and then actually experiencing the country in real life, was really eye-opening and interesting. I learned about different elements that make up the identity of Guatemala beforehand. This helped me to communicate better with the locals as well as have more educated questions and conversation topics to speak about.



If I had traveled there, I would have never believed that many of the local Guatemalan Mayan people wear traditional clothing every day. Many customs, such as cooking, weaving and farming, have been passed down from generation to generation.

Within Guatemala, I helped instruct some of the classes at the Miguel Angel Asturias Academy. With the supervision of the teachers there, I was given the freedom to plan and teach lessons in English, art and math. Working with children was refreshing and fun.

I also helped out as the assistant coach during soccer club for boys and girls, ages 7-13. In the club setting, the dynamics are different than in the classroom. It was a great opportunity to bond and speak with the children in a more relaxed and informal setting.

In addition to the academic part of the trip, I celebrated my birthday in Guatemala, which occurred during my time there. At the academy with the students, we had a giant piñata filled with candy. I also partook in a Guatemalan tradition of trying to ‘take a bite out of the cake.’ (In reality, that means getting your face covered in birthday cake.) Both my classmates and the students were laughing and happy that I was excited to be accepted and be a part of the celebration.

I also got to watch a semi-finals soccer game between the city we were staying in, Xela, and a team from Guatemala City. The crowd had so much energy and passion for the team and the game. I loved it.

I could not believe how much my Spanish improved during this trip. Prior, I had many problems retelling events or stories because I could not think of the right tenses quick enough to speak or make grammatical sense. By the end, I could retell stories and even make jokes in Spanish fluidly with ease.

The food on the trip was delicious. The family that cooked our meals was extremely kind and accommodating. They treated us like their own family and made us feel welcomed.

My community service learning trip to Guatemala was definitely one of my most memorable and enjoyable moments of university so far. Traditional textbook work or lecture-based classes simply have no comparison to the learning experience I received.

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JOIN THE TEAM: Students are invited to an information session on the course Community Service Learning in the Hispanic World: Guatemala – History, Culture and People in Context at 5 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28 in University College 205. The session will feature first-hand accounts from organizers and former students about this unique community service learning experience.

For details, please contact Robin at or Anne-Marie Fischer at