San Marcos,
17:00 PM

Students Travel to Central America for Service, Research and Cultural Competency

By Margaret Chantung

Over the summer nine Cal State San Marcos students traveled to the beautiful Guatemalan highlands of Panajachel for a three-week research course. Integrating themselves into the community, the students worked side by side with residents and fellow volunteers while enjoying the country’s rich culture and hands-on learning opportunities.

Healthcare and Pain Management in Guatemala

While in the country, the students conducted field research related to pain management. Each evening they studied academic articles about Guatemala’s culture and healthcare customs, and were required to reflect online about their thoughts and findings.

“We met with a huesero (a traditional bone mender and healer), attended a blessing ceremony with a shaman, and visited a natural health store and medicinal herb garden,” said senior Laura Pacheco. “We also interviewed people that we met on the streets and in shops and asked them how they treat pain.”

Laura said she and her fellow students soon realized that there was a real difference in traditional versus western philosophies of pain management among the indigenous Guatemalans.  

“There seemed to be a common understanding that western medicine cures the symptoms but Mayan medicine treats the origin of the pain,” she reflected.

Service Projects Provide Opportunities to Interact and Observe

Despite being one of the most populous countries in Latin America, the country also has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the poorest. Poverty is widespread with a gross domestic product (GDP) of less than $2,000 per year, per person. The majority of the indigenous peoples—which make up approximately half of the population—are of Mayan descent.

“It was mind blowing,” said senior Alicia Moya, “Very few people have access to clean running water. We in America really take our privileges for granted — the most essential thing to have in your life is clean water and I’ve never seen people live like that.”

Despite the culture shock, the students quickly adapted and got to work on various service projects that provided them with the opportunity to interact with and observe the local population.

Working with the non-governmental organization Mayan Families, the students helped pay for and build a kitchen extension for a family of eight living in a one-room house. 

“For many families housing is a challenge,” said Dr. Elizabeth Bigham, instructor for the course. “A construction worker built the foundation of the 3-by-3-meter room, but we helped construct the walls, roof and floor. Now they have a water filter and a wood burning stove with a ventilation pipe which will drastically improve their quality of life.”

The students’ trip and work with Mayan Families coincided with a visit from a group of volunteer dentists who set up a temporary clinic to treat children and adults. Due to the region’s severe poverty, dental hygiene education has been minimal and people suffer from rampant tooth decay, infections and pain. 

“It was shocking to realize that dental care is completely nonexistent there,” said Alicia. “They don’t even have toothbrushes and toothpaste.”

Several of the Spanish speaking CSUSM students were able to work alongside the dentists and hygienists, acting as interpreters and communicating to the clients who lined up out the door for treatment.

“We saw at least 70 people a day,” said senior Erikah Smalls, “There was a real need for access to this type of healthcare service.”

A Country Rich in Culture

During the trip students discovered modern Mayan culture and explored Guatemala’s rich heritage. Among the sites they toured were Pacaya, an active volcano which last erupted in 2010, and the ruins of Iximche, a major archaeological site of the Classic Period (250 to 900 AD).

“The variety of the handmade, traditional clothing definitely caught our eyes,” said Erikah. “I loved seeing how the Mayans are keeping their culture alive with their colorfully woven skirts and blouses, which identify the wearer’s village and have other symbolic meanings.”

This January Bigham will travel with another group of students to Peru. “These experiences abroad are important for them and their success in their future careers,” she said. 

Many human development majors eventually enter into the social work, education, counseling and healthcare professions.

“We study and do research abroad to show students that there is more to the world than what they know here in Southern California,” said Bigham. “When they come home they have the context and cultural competency to assist their future clients who may come to them for help from a wide array of cultures and backgrounds.”

Erikah, who was also on the CSUSM research trip to Vietnam, is already eager to go back.

“There is so much need there, it’s truly eye-opening,” she remembered. “You can really make a big impact in so many small ways.”