Student Insight into the Culture and Community of Guatemala

Jessica Mendoza, staff writer
Mai Chia Thao, photographer unknown

Below is an interview featuring Mai Chia Thao about her experience traveling to Guatemala for spring break in 2019. Thao talks about her and her classmates’ encounter with Guatemala’s history and community.

Jessica Mendoza (JM): Tell me about your short term program. How did the length impact your experience? 

Mai Chia Thao (MT): The program was one week long during spring break for a religion course in Guatemala. I was able to explore Guatemala for a week and learn about the country’s history, like the guerrilla war, and I learned about the indigenous people and cultures. We spent some time with host families as well. So I got the opportunity to speak with a Guatemalan family and explore the mountains with them. We went to coffee plantations too so that opened my mind a little more about where these people live and how they’re living now due to the guerrilla war.

Matthew Maruggi was the religion professor for this course. He was an amazing professor, very flexible with the students he actually emailed students first and we had two times to choose from. We met every other Sunday at 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. before the program started. And there were two books that we had to read. There were a lot of readings to do and a lot of class discussions after the reading for the Sunday meeting. During the trip we went to many sites and after every site that we visited we would just come back and reflect on what we did that day. Then when we came back we just had a term paper to write and that was pretty much it. So the workload wasn’t a lot, but the quality of it was great. 

JM: What are some things you learned about studying abroad? Were you nervous about the trip? 

MT: Growing up, I heard many people say that you must travel at least once or twice throughout your four years of college. I think it’s different for every person but I really wanted to study abroad. I thought that it was just a great opportunity, why not go and earn credits and then also get to explore? Something to keep in mind is balancing out the academic part and exploring. Because you’re not just there to have fun you’re there to learn and also appreciate and respect the people there. I went in a group of 22 students with a professor and a study abroad advisor. I was very scared and intimidated because I didn’t know what to expect from the program, and I didn’t know who I was going with. I was wondering, am I going to like the people going? Are we going to become friends? Luckily I was with two people that I knew, they were both seniors. But the rest of the students were strangers. Everyone was really respectful and mindful of each other, understanding who I am as a person. And then when we went to Guatemala, we all had individual hotel rooms that eventually we had to find a roommate for the host families stay. 

In terms of paying for the program, luckily I had enough scholarships so I only had to pay like $32 to go on this trip, because it was pretty much paid for. That included room and board and all the meals. Overall I brought 200 US dollars and exchanged it to Quetzales but I only used 100. The hundred dollars I used was for souvenirs or to buy some coffee in the morning with my roommates. I had actually met with a study abroad advisor before the program and she helped me map out the financial aid. And so, as we were mapping it out, she just came up to me and said “you’re actually covered”. I used my semester refunds to cover the spring break trip. I suggest students look at potential ways to pay for programs and work with the study abroad office to see what is out there. 

Mai Chia Thao, photographer unknown