Making a difference: Spring break in Guatemala

March 22, 2018 | Op-Ed, Arts and Letters, Honors
By Ashley Diel

For college students, spring break is generally a time to party, hang out with friends, or catch up on sleep. However, these typical activities did not entice me: I wanted to do something bigger and more meaningful.

During my junior year, I studied abroad in Ghana and realized my love for traveling as well as helping others. While there, I worked at a small non-government organization called the Mawulolo Youth Network, an after-school program, where I taught first- and second-graders math and English.

UT students posed for a photo outside the library they painted in a small mountain village in Guatemala. They are, from left standing, Megh Kumar; Carlee Vaughn; and Manuel Martinez, a guide from International Samaritan, the organization that assisted with the trip; and, seated from left, Seth Hasler; Sarah Jaggernauth; Dr. Ashley Pryor, associate professor in the Jesup Scott Honors College; Ashley Diel; Allison Grim; and Elizabeth Russell.

I quickly began to see how different other countries were from the United States, especially in the case of education, or rather the lack of its availability to children in other parts of the world.

Since then, I have made it my personal mission to travel to places others in the United States generally do not go to such as throughout Africa and the Middle East to see how others live as well as to learn about the accessibility to education.

With this mindset, I knew I wanted to make my senior year spring break memorable by continuing working in a community in another country to help lessen the gap between education and accessibility.

Last year for spring break, I traveled to Nicaragua with the Jesup Scott Honors College and worked in a school helping to build a library. I saw it only fitting that I travel with the college again this year, but this time to Guatemala.

Ashley Diel took this photo in Guatemala from Cerro de la Cruz looking over the city of Antigua with Agua Volcano in the background. 

There were seven honors students going on the trip. I was fortunate to know a few of them who had gone to Nicaragua with me last year, but by the end of the trip, all of us had become good friends.

For our first day in Guatemala, we traveled around the city of San Juan, as well as Antigua. This was meant to show us the country and let us learn a little about its culture. We learned about the importance of jade in Guatemala dating back to the times of the Mayans, as well as traveled to see an active volcano. The country was beautiful, and the views were breath-taking.

However, we were not there to vacation. We were there to work.

For the rest of the week, we spent time in a small community in the mountains. Getting there was an adventure as we had to drive down winding hills that made it feel like we were at Cedar Point.

We had two main projects that we worked on in the community. We painted the inside and outside of a small library for the children, and we started building the foundation of a house for a local family. While I have painted many times, I cannot say that I have ever had to do construction, and it gave me a new appreciation for the people who do it for a living.

The group of us dug trenches with pick axes for days as the community did not have access to machinery to do the digging. Many of us quickly formed blisters, but we kept at it knowing that a little bit of pain on our behalf was worth it if we were able to help the people there.

As we worked, some of the local children would come up to us, interested in what we were doing. Unfortunately, my Spanish is not very good, so I was unable to communicate with them, but several other students on the trip were fluent and spoke with the kids.

It was amazing to see my fellow UT students interacting with the kids and connecting with some of the adults in the community. Since the kids did not know English, one of the students in my group wrote down a bunch of words for them so that they could begin learning.

As the week came to a close, I could see just how much we had accomplished. It was amazing to see how much we had painted, but even more impressive was how much of the foundation for the house we had finished. In one week, we went from not having broken ground to trenches that were several feet deep and beginning to lay the cinder blocks for the walls.

While we all had a great time in Guatemala working and experiencing the culture, it was even more rewarding knowing we had made at least a little difference in the lives of those who live there.

I believe I can speak for everyone who went on the trip and say we all felt a sense of pride in what we had been able to accomplish. I am sure we all wished we could stay longer than a week, especially so that we could see the house being built through the end.

Saying goodbye to Guatemala was hard, as it always is with any country that I visit. However, I know that it will not be my last time traveling or volunteering abroad. There are still so many new and exciting opportunities out there, and I plan to keep going everywhere I can and trying to make a difference.

Diel is a senior majoring in communication and a student in the Jesup Scott Honors College. She will graduate in May.

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