Students to ‘educate their hearts’ by traveling to Guatemala

By Leo Melancon
January 31, 2020

Cabrini students taking in the landscape surrounding San Lucas Tolimán. Photo by Ang Capozzi.
Cabrini students taking in the landscape surrounding San Lucas Tolimán. Photo by Ang Capozzi.

A group of 13 students and seven faculty will be learning about Guatemala and its people through a week-long travel abroad experience this spring break. The group will work with the San Lucas Tolimán Mission on tasks such as building houses, roads and stoves. Participants will learn about the impact of climate change and political unrest on the people of Guatemala. This will be the 12th time Dr. Jerome Zurek, professor of communication, has taught and led the experience.

Dr. Jerome Zurek is the head coordinator for the Guatemala Study Abroad Program. Photo by Leo Melancon.

“The students aren’t just visiting a country and seeing its culture,” participant Erin McLaughlin, professor of business and international business, said. “They’re really learning about human dignity . . . and how they can work alongside those that have been marginalized.”

McLaughlin is one of seven faculty members whose participation is funded by a two-year grant that allows faculty to pursue research focusing on issues of Latin American migration.

“The seven faculty that are participating are also students of the process, as development,” said Celia Szelwach, assistant professor of leadership and organizational development. “We have doctorates, but we’re also continuous learners.”

The Guatemala trip is paired with two courses about the history, culture,

Cabrini students taking in the landscape surrounding San Lucas Tolimán. Photo by Angelina Capozzi.

economics and politics of the country. Students must be enrolled in either ECG 200, “Faces of Guatemala and Justice,” or ECG 300, “Working for Justice in Guatemala.”  

“A lot of people think that it’s mostly just getting in the class, going to Guatemala, coming back, and that’s it,” Taylor LaPergola, sophomore marketing major, said. “But then we go to Washington, D.C. and we advocate for change and international affairs. So it’s a lot more than just taking a trip.”

In addition to tuition, the cost to students is $950, which includes airfare, food, lodging and transportation. Limited scholarship funds were available for the first time this year. 

The group will stay in San Lucas, lodging in small hotels resembling old-style college dormitories, according to course leader Zurek. San Lucas Tolimán Mission staff will direct the group’s projects.

Building houses is one of the services Cabrini students and faculty will take part in during their week in San Lucas. Photo courtesy of Angelina Capozzi.

“The Mission’s big project these days is building houses for so many of the women [who] have been either abandoned by husbands, or their husbands have died, or their husbands might have gone into a city, and so it’s often a grandma, mom, and little children,” Zurek said. “They’re often living in very bad conditions so the Mission has been trying to construct as many simple houses as possible, so that kids can grow up safe and healthy.”

Guatemala lies between Mexico and Belize in Central America. Once the heart of the Maya civilization, it is a country of rain forests, volcanoes and political upheaval.

“Guatemala had a 36-year-long civil war that ended in 1996,” Zurek said. “The Mayan people suffered greatly during that war, about 200,000 were killed. And that followed 500 years of colonialism. So now they’re trying to rebuild. [San Lucas] is a great example of how people who have been enslaved for 500

Four of the seven faculty accompanying Dr. Zurek and students to San Lucas Tolimán, from top left to bottom right: Erin McLaughlin, Todd Matthews, Celia Szelwach, and Crystal Anderson. Photos by Leo Melancon and courtesy of Matthew and Szelwach.

years can rise up and build a better future for themselves.”

That history of colonization and unrest makes Guatemala particularly relevant to study.

“It’s a country that’s in the news quite a bit these days in the United States as relates to the issue of immigration,” Dr. Todd Matthews, associate professor of leadership and organization development, said. “I think it’s a really good opportunity for students to see firsthand how people in Guatemala live, the conditions they experience–both good and not so good–to get a better sense of what leads so many to want to migrate to the United States.” 

Unlike many spring break service trips, this trip’s goal is not merely to help the indigenous people of Guatemala, but to learn from them.

“The difference between this and many other trips that go to poor countries is that, often, North Americans feel that we have the answers and we’re going to teach these poor people how to do things the right way,” Zurek said. “Whereas, we go there as learners and they’re teaching us how to do things.”

The work the group will do–building houses, fixing roads, building stoves–is not for the faint-hearted. 

Senior Angelina Capozzi with a young resident of San Lucas Tolimán during the 2019 trip. This year she will be working for the Mission and taking pictures and video. Photo courtesy of Angelina Capozzi.

“If you’re not used to outdoor labor, that might be a concern,” said Angelina Capozzi, a senior communication major making the trip for a second time. “You will shovel dirt and have to carry it on your back, and it’s an awesome experience, but there’s definitely some kids in my class [last year] that struggled with that.”

Whether experienced travelers or first-timers, all participants seem to have hopes for how the trip will help them grow.

Alliyah Maduro, senior digital communication major, has been the classroom coach for Zurek’s ECG 300 class but never made the trip until now.  

“I didn’t want to read it from a textbook or read it from a PowerPoint. I want to know these people. I want to immerse myself in their situation and I want to go home feeling as though I have to share their story,” Maduro said. “I feel as though it will just change my life and it would help me advocate more strongly for those kind of people.”

“I feel like my heart gets set on fire in places like this,” Mignon Toppino, senior religious studies major and social justice/philosophy minor, said. “I’m not completely sure about the next step in life career-wise, but I do know I want to serve our brothers and sisters, if that’s overseas or in the states.” 

“Something I would really love to do is travel and provide dental care to people that might not necessarily have access to it,” Kate Spurlock, freshman double major in Spanish and biology, said. “I’m very interested in developing my ability to speak Spanish, but also… to be immersed in this culture that’s different than your own.”

“My goal is to become an immigration attorney and I was hoping to get a sense of the full immigration process,” Guadalupe Mendez, a senior political science major with minors in Latin American studies and philosophy, said. “My parents are from Mexico, so I’ve seen the struggles and the push factors in Mexico, but I wanted to get a sense of it… in another country.”

The Mission aims to create safe housing for the residents of San Lucas, especially the children of abandoned or widowed women. Photo by Angelina Capozzi.

“Social justice is very important to me and it’s become more important as I’ve come to Cabrini,”  Alisa Takala, sophomore English secondary education major, said. “I find being around people, especially people with immense amounts of resiliency, is very emotional and religiously charged for me.” 

“I think it’ll help me be more culturally aware of the needs of my students in the classroom,” Julia Protasiuk, sophomore early education/special education major, said. “I think this is a really pivotal part in making my education complete.”

Across the board, participants agree that all Cabrini students should consider a travel abroad experience.

“I think ultimately, not just this trip but so many of them that we do here, are done in a purposeful way.  They fit with our mission of an education of the heart, so they’re not simply ecotourism,” Matthews said.

“I think all Americans need to see how people around the world live and that there’s no one right way to do things,” Zurek said. “The more you can see how other people live differently from us, but successfully, the more open-minded you’ll be.”

“It’ll transform their lives,” Crystal Anderson, professor for educational policy and leadership, said. “They will not be the same person when they come back from any kind of study abroad experience.” 

A travel abroad experience takes you not just to new places, but to new perspectives.

“It’s really beneficial and helpful for you to step out of your comfort zone,” Toppino said. “We were made for greatness, not comfort.”


Interested in  going to Guatemala in 2021? Attend the travel abroad fair next fall, or visit the Cabrini website for details

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