As part of Heritage Month, Sonja Bontrager, associate professor of Spanish at Newman University, presented a Mission Talk on "The ASC's Mission and the Guatemala Study and Serve" Wednesday, Feb. 17. She and 11 other students and faculty spent five weeks in Guatemala as part of the study abroad program last summer.
Bontrager first took students for the five-week, deep immersion, Spanish language study abroad to Barcelona, Spain in 2006. She later discovered two sisters of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ (ASC) living and serving in La Labor on the outskirts of Guatemala City and, in 2007, decided to take her students to Guatemala for intensive study, service and culture immersion. Bontrager has since taken students there several times.
The group spent the first week of their 2015 trip with Dani Brought, ASC, and Kris Schrader, ASC, in La Labor, volunteering in the sisters' health and education projects near Guatemala City. Students spent time volunteering with Sister Dani and Sister Kris in their medical and dental clinics and in environmental workshops.
Students stay with host families while they're in La Labor. Victor Tuan Vinh Phan, a student who participated in the 2015 trip, said, "When I met my host family in La Labor, [the father] said to me, 'You are part of my family now. These are your brothers and sisters.' Every day, I wish I could meet them again, be with them."
Not only are the students immersed in Spanish language, but they are also exposed to a people and an environment less fortunate than their own.
"Everyone sits in a class and you learn history and stories," said Rebecca Kopper, 2015 participant. "But then, when you go, and you interact with people who have lived these stories and you hear their versions... it affects you in a completely different way."
Mary Beth White, 2013 participant and current Wichita-area nurse, had a chance to visit a public hospital in Xela.
"It completely opened my eyes," White said. "There are countless numbers of things that to this day I look back and think that I couldn't have imagined trying to care for these patients in these conditions."
"I learned more about Guatemala, the Spanish language, other cultures and myself and my own culture than I could ever imagine going in," said Ellen Traylor, 2011 participant.
Coursework for the Guatemala Study and Serve study abroad program includes an Introduction to Central America course, which is offered the semester prior at Newman University, as well as a semester's worth of Spanish language courses packed into just five weeks.
White said the language skills she gained in Guatemala have helped her in her work as a nurse.
"At the very least, on a weekly basis, I have a Spanish-speaking only family," she said. "Their faces light up instantly when they realized that I can talk to them and answer their questions without having to wait on a translator."
White said the skills she gained are invaluable because it allows her to connect with these families "on a much more personal level."
Before leaving for Guatemala, students are instructed on intercultural communication, Guatemala history and how to use a travel guide. Bontrager also has her students read Tree Girl by Ben Mikaelsen, the true story of a girl living in Guatemala during very intense warfare, and The Shepherd Cannot Run by Father Stanley Rother, who was assassinated in Guatemala where he served.
Since 2007, Bontrager has taken students to Guatemala six times. The next trip is scheduled for Summer 2017.