March 24, 2008
TC3 trip to Guatemala eye-opening
Nine students visited country on 2-week trip during January
Photo provided by Nydia Williams
Tompkins Cortland Community College student Gloria Lowe looks at ornately carved knives at an open air market in Guatemala. Nine TC3 students traveled to the Central American country in January for two weeks, earning six credits.
DRYDEN — One of the lessons Tompkins Cortland Community College students brought home from a winter trip to Guatemala was that happiness does not depend on money.
“They have so little, but they are so happy,” said Karen Campbell, one of nine TC3 students who went on the trip.
She said that realization was life-changing for her. A nursing student, she said she bought a woven bracelet from a little girl there and, although already faded, plans to wear it forever.
“I’m never taking it off.”
Campbell, a Cortlandville resident, said that before going on the trip that she had an “I need” attitude — “I need jewelry, makeup, a cooler car. I never want to go back to that.”
Campbell and other students traveled to the country on a two-week trip in January.
“The people are poor,” said Nydia Williams of Ithaca, another TC3 student who went on the trip. “They can be rich in other ways. They have a lot of things that we lack in America.”
David Flaten, associate professor of history, and Tina Stavenhagen-Helgren, assistant professor of anthropology and sociology, organized the trip.
Students earned six credits for the class “Guatemala: The Old and the New.”
Flaten said the course was designed as a travel course to broaden and expand study opportunities at TC3 without replicating full- or half-semester opportunities most four-year colleges emphasize.
He said this was the first time the college sponsored a trip to the Central American country of Guatemala.
The college now has a commitment to do the trip for two more years through an agency called Troika, which strives to get three community colleges to collaborate so enough students participate to make the course viable, Stavenhagen-Helgren said.
Two colleges participated this year. Bill Schramm, who teaches economics at Roane State Community College in Tennessee, brought two additional students.
“I was hoping they would have their eyes and ears open — take a look at Guatemala as a modern state and draw their own conclusions,” said Flaten, who visited the country from 1988 to 1990 as a Peace Corps volunteer.
He said he has kept in contact with the small village of Canton Chuabaj and returned there with the students during the recent trip so they could observe Guatemalan daily life.
“My overall goal was to see them immerse themselves in the culture,” said Stavenhagen-Helgren.
She also said part of the coursework was to choose a topic and write about it through interviews and observation. Topics selected included religion in everyday life and the role of single women in Guatemala and in the United States, she said.
Student success at immersion was evident in their journal writing.
“I just love seeing the students engage in a new culture. It was a way of relating to the local people. That’s what was important,” said Stavenhagen-Helgren.
Williams connected wonderfully with the children of Guatemala, she said.
A mother of two children — a son, 7, and a daughter, 2, —Williams said she compared childhood there and here. A general studies major with an interest in photography, she said she took around 650 digital photographs while in Guatemala.
“I know my kids can be kind of spoiled,” she said, unlike in Guatemala where children were expected to do a lot and even work to contribute to household finances in jobs such as shining shoes or selling candy or jewelry.
“I was expecting it to be a scary, dirty place,” said Campbell. She said the cities of Guatemala were dirty and people would just throw trash anywhere. There were no city trashcans.
“The country was breathtaking,” she added. “The people are the most friendly and caring people,” she said of those in the country and tourist-friendly cities.
Campbell was inspired by Guatemala, even though there were only about two hours a day when there was water to shower, no hot water (even for showers) and often no power.
“It’s not like there’s a five-star hotel there,” she said.
Stavenhagen-Helgren, who had never been in the country but does research on Guatemalans working locally at dairy farms, said her church, Homer Congregational Church, has organized social events, such as soccer games, for the Guatemalans.
She found a strong sense of community, and the people took time to talk to and laugh with each other and their American visitors.
Williams said toward the end of the trip she and her roommate, Gloria Lowe of Cortland, spent a lot of time making a list of what they would like to change in their own lives.
Things on the list included spending more time with family, eating and cooking together and spending less time watching TV.
Since being back home, she has worked on crafts with her children instead of watching TV.
Campbell described an upper middle class family they met as living in a mud brick house with concrete floors and a single light bulb. The women hand weave garments and sometimes tend garden plots for a living, also something many of the men do.
In the family they met, the man owned a small store that sold chips, soda and yogurt.
Campbell said an interview with a single mother, who continued to weave while being interviewed, impressed her the most.
The woman would take six months to make a shirt that could be sold to Americans for $100 to $200, if they could get it to the market.
Campbell said while the group was there to observe, it was hard not to want to get involved.
Williams said the group contributed $510 for rebuilding the village school, which would be about 10 percent of the construction budget.
Stavenhagen-Helgren said Dryden senior citizens contributed $75 of the money after she spoke at one of their meetings.
She said this would be a way for the students to stay in contact with the village.
Campbell is looking forward to taking a TC3 nursing trip to Nicaragua, where students help with health clinics.
“I want to do more volunteer work,” she said.
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