Letters from Guatemala

By Students in the U21 Global Classroom

Join a global team of students from UConn and other Universitas 21 institutions in Guatemala, as they learn about cooperation, global citizenship, and social entrepreneurship in the global virtual classroom and on the ground.

Looking Back on a Month in Guatemala

The team.

The team.

The trip to Guatemala lasted only one month. At the end, I was surprised at how much I experienced and learned in this short amount of time. I learned a lot about Guatemalan culture and history, lived with two different families, upgraded my Spanish speaking ability, learned how to navigate myself around the cities of a foreign land, helped make a difference in a few people’s lives, made very good friends, and learned how to make a difference in the world. I understand that education does not simply consist of going to class and books; practical experience is as vital. In the one month spent in Guatemala, I was able to test the theories and concepts I have learned in class. The results further motivated me to continue working in development work outside of Guatemala.

As a student majoring in economics, I have learned a lot about entrepreneurship and about different development concepts. However, social entrepreneurship was foreign to me. In our social entrepreneurship class, we learned and discussed the difference between entrepreneurship and social entrepreneurship. While the former has its primary goal as making profit, the latter’s top priority is to bring about social change. It does not neglect profit because it must be sustainable, but this goal is secondary. To bring about social change, our organization uses the micro-consignment model. I understand this model to be very similar to the micro-credit programs, but instead of giving out loans, our organization gives out products to local entrepreneurs, who then sell these products to community members that need them. The entrepreneurs keep a fixed profit from each product sold and give the difference back to our organization, which gets the products from different manufacturing partners. The micro-consignment entrepreneurs do not have to worry about making a bad investment, because they will still have possession of the products if they cannot sell them.

Prior to the trip, I interacted with my 12 teammates through our Facebook group and through our online discussions for our classes. I was really impressed by the intelligence of the students. Everyone had great ideas and wonderful interpretations of each article we read. I was very excited to meet everyone and learn from them. I was somewhat nervous that I might feel intellectually small among them. After meeting everyone in the country, I knew that it would be a memorable summer.

Me enjoying a chocolate banana.

Me enjoying a chocolate banana.

The first week was mostly composed of Spanish classes and lectures about Guatemalan culture, history, and discussions concerning the Social Entrepreneur Corps. This time was spent in Xela, a small city about four hours from Antigua.

We watched a video that left a lasting impression on me. The video started with Greg Van Kirk, one of the founders of SEC talking about poverty. I was very touched when he said that poverty is not the problem, it is only a symptom. The problem is lack of access to opportunities, capital, and other materials. The SEC is working to create opportunities for entrepreneurs and create access to different useful materials for the poorest in the country.

We traveled back to Antigua on July 2 to spend two weeks doing field work and designing sales strategies, and our last week in Panajachel. Since our organization focused mostly on the rural areas, our new focus was to come up with strategies to help expand the products to the urban settings. We worked with two highly trained micro-consignment entrepreneurs, who sell the products by campaigning. The campaigns offer free eye exams as a way to attract people, since many Guatemalans experience eye problems due to too much sun exposure for people that work in the field, or due to smoke for mothers that work in the kitchen, or other reasons.

As the U21 team, we decided one of the best marketing tools would have to be education. If people understand that their water is dirty and what the potential consequences are of using dirty water, they are more likely to want a filter. We made educational flyers for each of the products designed in a problem-solution format. For example: the problem with dirty water is diseases, boiling water is inefficient, garrafones are expensive. The solution, our water filter. Because we were limited in time, we decided to only focus on the water filter as this product had the potential to be beneficial in an urban setting. We decided to go to different stores to do a product presentation and demonstration to stores that offer water to their customer or make use of water. Most of the owners showed interest, but we left Guatemala before the follow-up meetings, so we are not sure whether they actually bought any water filters.

In the end, what made the trip truly memorable was the people I worked with, lived with, and interacted with. Leaving home going to a new place can be very stressful. However, we had a great support system in the country. The first people I met in Guatemala were my teammates. They were from Australia, China, Hong Kong, England, Romania, Singapore, and the U.S. We had many interesting characters and different personalities. Nevertheless, we all had one mission in Guatemala and we related to each other through our concern for human rights. Once the trip came to end, I realized the first thing I will miss is the people that I worked with.

The view from Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America.

The view from Tajumulco, the highest mountain in Central America.

Secondly, the experiences of living with Guatemalan families further enriched our understanding of the culture and the Guatemalan people. I spent my first week living with a family in Xela and then two weeks with a different family in Antigua. Through my families and stories I heard from my colleagues about their families, I came to realize how friendly and fun the Guatemalan people are. My family loves to laugh and jokes around. I was impressed that the people were far less concerned when it came to race or physical features. For example, they will call an African American ‘blacky’ or ‘browny’ or call Asians ‘Chinos’ or ‘Chinas’. If someone is tall, short, or fat, they are going to call it like they see it. And the people do not mean to be offensive or serious. I think this is a very big contrast between American culture and Guatemalan. I agree that people should be proud and not ashamed or sensitive of who they are. Nonetheless, every country has experienced a different history that makes it unique.

My only disappointment in Guatemalan culture came from the food. I was expecting very tasty food upon arrival. However, in my opinion Guatemalan food is not the best. Regardless of that, the country’s beauty and greatness make up for any faults it may have.

Finally, because of the SEC I was able to experience a lot of personal growth, enhance my perspective on life, and gain a better understanding of how to make a difference in the world. I first heard about the SEC as I was browsing my school’s website. What attracted me to the organization was the keyword entrepreneur. One of my goals is to hopefully become an entrepreneur and I thought this program might be a great resource or opportunity. However, as I researched it, I learned that this was a different kind of entrepreneurship, it had the goal of social change attached to it. I saw this program as a way to experience the business side of an organization as well as work to make a difference. This program had a great impact on me, and I would encourage every student to participate in similar programs.