Newman students explore culture and language during Guatemala journey


Newman University offers its Guatemala Study and Serve trip every two years for its students, staff and faculty. This year, seminarians from the St. Joseph House of Formation joined the travelers as well.

Most arrived between May 19-26 as some traveled separately and others encountered a little unexpected delay. Most of the travelers returned in mid-July.

The program allows students to grow their ability to learn and speak the Spanish language while practicing in a welcoming and supportive context. Travelers live with host families or stay in locally-owned guesthouses while abroad.

Assistant Professor of Spanish Sonja Bontrager founded and organizes the trip. She said the immersion experience is a beneficial component to a world-language program.

“The study abroad program is important for participants because it immerses everyone in local languages and cultures, builds communication and intercultural skills and broadens our world view,” Bontrager explained. “Students overcome challenges and build confidence in their abilities to navigate and live in a host nation. While students build their Spanish skills, they also recognize Spanish in the current and historical context of local indigenous communities and languages.”

Faith is a large part of both Newman University and Latin American life, and the study abroad program dives into the heart of faith.

Bontrager explained, “While all program participants may not share the same faith, everyone studies the Spanish language, history, culture and contemporary issues together. They serve for a week in education and health institutions founded by the ASC (Adorers of the Blood of Christ), and visit sites connected to history and contemporary issues.”

The program also includes visits to Catholic churches, Masses, lectures on faith-related topics and time at sites honoring Catholic martyrs.

This year, Father Chad Arnold, assistant director of the St. Joseph House of Formation, and Father Clay Kimbro, parochial vicar, were with the group and provided Mass on several occasions.

Dillon Cott, a seminarian and student in the program, said his time in Guatemala was a way for him to use his Spanish skills, but on a deeper level, to understand the culture.

“This trip was important for me both as a practical advancement in my Spanish and a way to better comprehend what it means to grow up in a Spanish-speaking culture,” explained Cott. “As a man studying to be a Catholic priest, this experience opens new doors for ministry to Spanish speakers and helps me understand the complex and sometimes challenging backgrounds they bring with them as they enter our United States churches.”

He added his appreciation to the family he stayed with, saying the trip reminded him that a slight language barrier could still be overcome by the universal language of kindness and love.

“I was immediately taken in by my host family. I would spend hours speaking to my host family and playing games with them. Even though I struggled at times speaking Spanish, the universal language of love and the playfulness of the human heart still communicated.”

Junior Gabby Altenor said she would highly recommend other students participate in the program. She said not only did the experience help her improve her Spanish speaking skills, but the program’s full cultural immersion also helped her better understand cultural differences.

“The country, people and culture are absolutely beautiful, and experiencing them, even more so,” said Altenor. “It was important for me to be able to attend this Guatemala Study and Serve trip because I was able to be fully immersed in these different realities. I was able to learn about how diverse the economic, social and political situations vary not only by person but by country.”

Bontrager said the kindness and hospitality received by the families and individuals in Guatemala are unforgettable.

“I pray that gratitude for our Guatemalan neighbors’ generosity, love, commitment and expressions of faith move us to follow their example in our own communities and callings. The people of Guatemala teach us so much and I am very grateful to be part of a community of participants and collaborative faculty whose minds and hearts are forever marked by the experience.”



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