NEIU Students had an Eye-Opening Experience in Guatemala

Kristen Conradi, Business Manager

The Student Leadership and Development (SLD) office offered four Alternative Spring Break service trips to students this semester. Trip options included driving to the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, flying to Arizona near the Mexico border, a local trip to the Bronzeville Community of Chicago, and an unforgettable international trip to San Miguel Escobar in Guatemala.
The application process included writing three essays, a timed group activity, and an individual interview. According to Assistant Director of Student Activities Veronica Rodriguez, the SLD office was in search of a diverse group of open-minded students and received a record high number of applicants last October. The Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trips were first implemented in 2009 and have previously offered trips to El Paso, Texas and the South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. The goal is to provide students with an experience that will have a powerful impact and initiate a change within their life.
Nine students were selected for the Guatemala ASB service trip and Assistant Vice President for Student Affairs, Dr. Juan Guardia served as faculty adviser in attendance. Students packed up and left early Saturday, March 16 for a week in San Miguel Escobar, located near the historic city of Antigua.
Upon arrival the students were greeted by an As Green as it Gets Tourism Volunteer, Jane Atkinson. As Green as it Gets (AGAIG) is an organization founded in 2005 by Franklin Voorhes; an engineer-turned-volunteer seeking to put his knowledge to good use in this struggling country. Franklin was desperate to help farmers that were making as little as 80 quetzals per pound of coffee. The U.S. dollar equivalent is just ten cents per pound! Franklin found financing to invest in land and machinery and immediately began instructing farmers on how to process their coffee berries into marketable roasted coffee.
AGAIG organized seven long days of activities for the diverse group of NEIU student volunteers. On the first full day immersed in the culture, volunteers met their assigned coffee farmer and spent the day learning about coffee cultivation in the field. They put on their hiking boots and trekked up a dormant volcano to gain a new perspective on their daily cup of java. After picking coffee berries in the hot sun, the volunteers visited their respective farmer’s home to separate, roast, grind, and taste the fresh and delicious coffee.
Day two began with a shuttle to Antigua and a city tour. The volunteers hiked to Cerro, a plateau located on the slopes of Atitlan Volcano that holds a majestic stone cross altar for Mayan ceremonies. On the third day, volunteers assisted an artisan workshop in completing one of three projects: cosmetics, textiles, or burlap bags. After learning the history behind each craft, the NEIU volunteers visited a farmer’s house to cook a traditional Guatemalan dish called Pepian. Pepian is a chicken dish served in a rich blended sauce composed of various vegetables. The Pepian dish was completely prepared from scratch, and students even assisted in plucking the chicken’s feathers.
The fifth day was a long, hard day of construction on a middle school for children of the community. Unfortunately the school will take eight to ten years to build because its completion relies solely on donations of time and materials. One of the NEIU volunteers, Kelly Webb, stated that “this experience has really put my education into perspective. Most children in Guatemala want to attend school, but usually have to quit after sixth grade because their families need their help. An eleven year old local boy told me that if he could have anything in the world, he would want math books.”
The trip continued with another day of hiking in the mountains of San Juan with beautiful nature and agriculture views. To be further engaged in the Guatemalan culture, the students participated in a fresh food market scavenger hunt with the objective of obtaining all the ingredients used to cook dinner later that evening. On the final day in Guatemala, students had the option to explore and do an activity of their choice. A handful of students went zip lining in the jungle with breath catching views of Lake Atitlan, waterfalls, and monkeys. Other students elected to go for a boat ride with views of the Mayan Ruins or bargain for souvenirs amongst the hundreds of shops in the market.
The Guatemalans’ are unbelievably hard-working and have admirable family values. Every resident of San Miguel Escobar welcomed the out-of-towners with a smile and a verbal greeting at all hours of the day and night. The entire adventure was eye-opening, humbling, and truly makes a person appreciate the simpler things in life. The student trip leader, Angel Downie said “I have gotten to know myself, the meaning of hard work, and have learned to be satisfied with what I have.”