Every other year, Assistant Professor of Spanish Sonja Bontrager takes a group of students to Guatemala for the “Guatemala Study and Serve” program, where they speak, learn, and interact with the Spanish culture through an immersive, real-world experience. This year, before the group of 13 students departs in May, Bontrager hosted the first “Guatemala Study and Serve” alumni party on Monday evening, March 6. Those who have taken the trip were invited to share their stories and experiences along with answering questions for the new group.
Bontrager stated, “The first academic goal is the students learn to communicate with confidence in Spanish. Secondly, the intercultural skills, worldview, and perspective from the trip last a lifetime. Participants who have time to be immersed in another culture and who learn to communicate on the terms of another person are transformed by that in a unique way.”
Two of the speakers, both Newman alumni, spoke highly of how the trip changed their lives.
The first speaker Brenna Nelson, who received her undergraduate degree in Liberal Studies and returned to receive her Master of Social Work degree, said, “I realized how much I love helping others through the service work in Guatemala. It gave me a different perspective on the poor. If I hadn’t taken the trip I may not be in the social work field.”
Victor Phan, the second speaker, graduated from Newman in December 2016 with a degree in biochemistry and a minor in Spanish. Phan explained to the new group how he was scared to travel far away from home to be in a foreign country for two weeks, but the host family he stayed with made him feel welcome and taught him an important life lesson.
“’Don’t think of us as a host family; think of us as your real family,’ they told me,” Phan said. “They were very accommodating in every way. They said I was like a son to them and we are a family. This shows the connections we have around the world and how we should treat each other.”
One of the freshmen who will attend the trip this summer Marisa-Nicole Zayat, who is a Spanish minor like Phan, took his words to heart since she feels apprehension about what this new experience will have in store. Zayat has already been studying Spanish for four years and went to a Spanish speaking country recently for a mission trip through her church.
Zayat said, “I believe it will be a humbling experience. We have so much in America compared to what they have in Guatemala. I believe it will also make me rethink what is important in my life. Studying their culture has drawn me to possibly opening a free clinic in Guatemala after I receive my medical degree so that I could help them have some opportunities we have in America.”
Sophomore, Dalia Martinez, also wishes to go into the medical field with the ambition of using her multilingual skills to help bridge the gap between healthcare professionals who do not know Spanish and patients who do not know English.
“Being Mexican-American has given me the privilege to grow up with the taste of another culture,” said Martinez, “Being in Guatemala this summer will help me perfect my Spanish and I am also very eager for the service we will be doing which involves helping out at a hospital.”
Martinez is the first Newman student to receive the U.S. Department of State´s Gilman International Scholarship for study abroad.
“Winning the award means so much to me because I would have never imagined someone with my background – a female Hispanic student – to be a part of such an incredible experience. Being able to worry less about the financial aspect of this trip has been a huge blessing which I am proud and grateful,” said Martinez.
The eldest member of the group has been journeying to Guatemala for the past 50 years. This is Mary Gonzalez’s first year as a student at Newman. When she heard of the “Guatemala Study and Serve,” she felt it would be the perfect opportunity for her to revisit the country in a fresh, exciting way. Gonzalez has a dear connection to Guatemala, as she put a little Guatemalan girl through school since the girl’s parents could not afford to do so. The girl has now grown up and graduated from high school recently and will be attending college next year.
Gonzalez recalled a personal memory how she spoke Spanish with her parents as a little girl but lost it over the years. Every time she visited Guatemala she picked the language back up again, but not as fully as she would have liked considering her usage of the language wanes upon returning back to the States. Gonzalez said, “I want to see other parts of Guatemala and speak Spanish all the time.”
Bontrager expressed that she “hopes this group will continue the good work the other groups have done in creating a good reputation for Newman, and will truly be interested to love and know their neighbors there and hold those people in their hearts for the rest of their lives.”