by Amy Vaerewyck
Jessica is 10 years old. She lives in a shack in rural Guatemala, thousands of miles from Colorado—but at the University of Colorado Denver, she has 14 friends who adore her.
“We fell in love with this little girl,” said psychology student Dennie Brady. “In two weeks with them, it was amazing how much you cared for them.”
Brady was one of the 14 students who went to Guatemala during Maymester 2012 with the “Nobel Cause: Peace & Justice in Guatemala” course. Focused on the issues of Mayan people, the “Nobel Cause” program was created three years ago by CU Denver Communication Instructor Prof. E.J. Yoder, PhD, in conjunction with the local non-profit PeaceJam and the foundation started by Guatemalan—and Nobel Peace Laureate—Rigoberta Menchú Tum.
“In this course, students truly become aware of a country in need of a responsible government and indigenous population’s human rights issues,” Yoder said, “and this year they were exposed to the contemporary consequences of genocide, a result of Guatemala’s 36-year civil war.”
Poverty, Violence, Beauty
The group started their journey in Guatemala City, where they witnessed extreme poverty and the challenges of a city teeming with people desperately seeking a livelihood. Heavily armed military officers patrolled the streets.
But there was beauty to be seen too. One night, the students watched fiery lava stream from Volcán de Fuego. Another evening, they experienced a sacred Mayan fire ritual at Tum’s home in honor of the students’ arrival and service projects.
“I felt every kind of emotion imaginable during this trip,” said biology
student Jose Hernandez, whose family is from Mexico but had never been to Guatemala before. “I fell in love with the place.”
Students of CU Denver, Citizens of the World
After a week in Guatemala City, the group headed to San Lucas Tolimán, where they engaged in service projects for the local community. Collectively, they created a community garden, gave dance and music lessons, taught English and helped provide basic physical therapy treatments. They learned about the challenges of a developing country and the leftover tensions of colonization.
“I love observing them grow personally and mature as global citizens,” said Yoder, who has also led student groups from other universities to Bosnia and Nepal. “The students this year were amazing, very respectful, responsible and not timid when engaging with the community we served.”
Throughout the trip, students kept daily journals and participated in group reflection sessions each evening. To get full credit for the course, they’ll each write a paper and give a presentation on their experience before the end of the summer.
"Even though I come from a Latin American country, 'Nobel Cause' was a whole different experience. This trip changed my life, and it definitely helped to choose a path in my life.” – Andrea Pinto, Maymester in Guatemala participant
Little Girl, Big Spirit
It was in San Lucas Tolimán that the students met Jessica. She has scoliosis and came to the center often for physical therapy.
“She has such a big spirit,” Brady said. “Despite being very sick, she was always so happy to see us.”
The students learned that Jessica’s father had died and that her mother is struggling to support three kids on almost no money. Her family’s house has a dirt floor that gets muddy when it rains. With no ventilation, the air in the house becomes toxic with smoke from the wood-burning stove.
The group of students—most of whom had hardly known each other a month earlier—banded together to help the family. They created “Jessica’s Project
” to build a home for Jessica’s family through Habitat for Humanity. Within a week of returning home, they had set up a Facebook page
to raise funds and garner support.
Service, Culture, Diversity
The “Nobel Cause” course is designed to open students eyes, hearts and minds to a world much different than their own.
“The service learning initiatives and increasing cultural competency in my own life are some of the reasons I was attracted to the program,” Hernandez said.
“‘Nobel Cause’ was an incredible learning experience for our students,” said John Sunnygard, director of Global Education
, who went to Guatemala with the students. “The group support and cohesion was phenomenal.”