Summer 2015 Buck-I-SERV Trip to Guatemala

Name: Rongsheng Ning

Type of Project: Service Learning and Community Service

During the summer, I traveled to Antigua, Guatemala on a week-long BUCK-I-SERV trip with seven fellow Buckeyes to work alongside with two non-profit organizations: Constru Casa and HANDS. The goal was to construct sustainable houses for Guatemalan families to improve their housing and living conditions. Specific tasks consisted of digging foundations, mixing concrete, and laying blocks with the aid of a skilled mason.

As this is the first time I set foot in an unfamiliar country, I was a little hesitant to explore the culture and landscape that Guatemala has to offer due to my initial assumptions on developing nations. Before the trip, I have always imagined developing nations to be violent and unsafe. This notion changed as I have realized how sincere and kind the Guatemalans are from interacting with our host family Enrique and Elvira to the family I worked with.

Enrique and Elvira treated our group like family. On the first day, they showed us around Antigua and immersed us with the beauty of their city from its colored houses and paved street to several Spanish Baroque styled colonial churches. They helped maintained our rooms and provided us with three delicious meals a day with some history behind several of their homemade traditional Guatemalan dishes. In addition, they gave us great recommendations on where to enjoy traditional Guatemalan dishes, purchase souvenirs, and learn salsa dancing. Their kindness truly made Guatemala felt like home.

The families and the masons we worked with were equally kind as Enrique and Elvira. Although both the families and masons did not speak English, we were able to manage the language barrier due to everyone’s patience towards one another. We worked from 8 AM to 4 PM each day. The mason gave us specific instructions on each task by demonstrating them. Several tasks included using pliers to tie wires around the rebar as support for the foundation of the house, making concrete through mixing cement and sand along with gravel and water, and chipping holes into concrete blocks with hatchets to allow access for the rebar. If a mistake was made, such as breaking the concrete block by applying too much force on the hatchet, the mason and families were forgiving and are only concern about our safety. During the work there, I am amazed at the dedication and hard work everyone contributed, including the families’ six-year old child, to bringing their new home to life.

Through these interactions, my STEP experience transformed me through changing my outlook on life. After witnessing everyone’s kindness, the experience has changed my views on my initial assumptions for developing countries. Now, I view them as peaceful and safe. I also became more thankful for all the “little things” that we take for granted in life as seeing the Guatemalans content with their life with what little they have.

By realizing how little I knew about developing countries made me want to expand my awareness about other countries, giving me the desire to explore every detail of it to uncover its beauties. In addition, I realized the importance of having the right mindset to be happy with what I have as there are people out there in the world struggling to put food on their table and to have roof over their heads. Overall, I would like to thank STEP for providing me the opportunity to experience this service learning and community service experience that enabled me to help families in Guatemala through constructing sustainable homes and exploring the rich culture that Guatemala has to offer.

Group Picture at Volcano Pacaya

Group Picture at Volcano Pacaya

Our Work Site

Our Work Site

Lessons from the Ground Up: WWOOFing Experience

Name: Courtney George

Type of Project: Service Learning

Time Period: June 2015

Location: Chandelier Springs Farm Valley Center, CA

Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.  Write two or three sentences describing the main activities your STEP Signature Project entailed.

I lived and worked on a small-scale organic farm for the month of June in Valley Center, California through the organization WWOOF (World Wide Opportunities in Organic Farming). In exchange for volunteering my labor, I received free farming education, living quarters, and food. The organization also allows the opportunity to have cultural exchanges with the local people in the area and between participating WWOOFers from all over the world. I chose Chandelier Springs farm because it was an entirely self-sustainable, off the grid, and locally producing farm compared to larger industrial organic farms. This entailed a much different set of tasks including fetching water, chopping wood, making fires, and cooking from scratch etc. along with daily farm work such as weeding, harvesting, and digging.

What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

Lessons from the Farm:

  • DIY everything
  • Be open to new experiences
  • Live life simply
  • Reuse everything
  • There is always time to sit down and play music with friends
  • Respect nature for it gives everything
  • The paramount importance of teamwork
  •  People can always connect through food , no matter how different they are

I already considered myself a simple person, but living with no electricity, air conditioning, Internet, cell signal, running water, or connection to humanity besides one’s fellow farm workers, really simplified my definition of needs. The lines between needs and wants are constantly blurred living in the industrialized world with marketing narratives bombarding our subconscious with new products, shiny cars, and bigger houses.  We are taught that life is about acquiring money and material goods to be happy. I discovered all of these notions to be false during my time at Chandelier Springs. I did not have many possessions, any modern day comforts, or barely any money with me, yet I was completely content; maybe even the most at peace than ever before. Through the hard work, team building, and immersion in nature, I realized that happiness and reaching my full potential is dependent solely on myself and the company I keep, not the pursuit of money and material possessions.

What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

Meeting and bonding with the other WWOOFers (people who WWOOF) was the biggest catalyst in my transformative experience. Living in a self-reliant community such as that means that through thick and thin, everyone is dependent upon one another for daily life. I obviously made some wonderful diverse friends from whom I learned so much about their countries of origin. What was even more impactful on me was how much I learned from the people who I did not necessarily get along with. WWOOFers whose views clashed with mine created some moments of tension, but we were able to respect each other and unite to solve daily problems. In normal society we tend to align ourselves with people whom we can relate, connect, and agree with, ignoring even excluding those who oppose us. In that experience, it was necessary to hone my conflict mediation and people skills in order to cohabitate peacefully and pleasantly. It also fully developed my empathy for all humans from all walks of life, not just those who I like. While I did not fully agree or wanted to be best friends with all the WWOOFers, it was amazing to have built such a close, trusting, bonded family out of foreign strangers in that short time period.  Honestly I trust those people with my life more than many of the friends I have ever had. The ones that I did click with will hopefully be my friends for the rest of my life and I will visit them when I travel after graduation.

Along with meeting new people, the living situation would be the second biggest catalyst for my personal growth during this experience. Other than the philosophical epiphanies about consumerism, materialism, and modern day privilege, with all the quiet alone time amidst nature, I was able to have deep discoveries about myself. I had never really been forced to work hard labor in any capacity before; I found its reputation of breeding humility and gratitude to be incredibly true. Working in the hot sun for six hours a day makes a glass of water, clean shower, hot meal, and a warm blanket the greatest gifts in the world. I discovered the extent of my physical and mental strength to be larger than I anticipated working in the fields and participating in daily tasks. I also realized that while this experience was short lived, these labors are the reality for millions of people living on subsistence farms in poverty. Above all the epiphanies made during that time, the most important is that I became more aware of the lives of people all over the world whose daily reality was my summer vacation.

Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?  How does this change or development matter and/or relate to your academic, personal, and/or professional goals and future plans?

The main academic reason I created this service learning experience was the desire to experience our food system first hand from the perspective of the farmer/grower.  I chose a rural small scale farm because I wanted to understand how most of the world feeds itself, without the aid of petroleum, artificial fertilizers and pesticides, and large scale technology.  I love being outside interacting directly with food and the earth, therefore I do not think I could ever have an office job after this experience.  I also fully realized how central food and agriculture is to developing society, relationships, and culture. In order to understand the world’s food system, I need to start from where its grown and the people who grow it.  I plan on traveling the world, learning more about food’s changing role in different societies.

Service Learning Reflection – Brian Smudski


1. My project was to complete a week-long mission trip in Guatemala. While there, I worked in a team to build a chicken coop for a deserving family of the village just outside of Guatemala City. The chicken coop we supplied to this family was approximately 100 square feet and had 25 chickens come with it. While there, the team also visited the school in the village and an orphanage just outside of the city. In the school is where I ended up having the greatest transformational experience.


2. Before I went there, I thought I knew what to expect because I have gone to a third world country before. In 2005, I visited family in Colombia for a month. However, while in Guatemala, I went to an extremely underprivileged village and orphanage. The funds I received from STEP allowed me to go to Guatemala and experience the people of this great country.

On my mission trip, I not only helped build a chicken coop, but I also visited the school of the village to interact with the kids and play games with them. It was interesting to see how seriously the children took their schoolwork. I did not expect to see such an education in what I thought was an “underprivileged” village of a third world country. Seeing the children there be so grateful for their ability to get an education really impacted me. It helped me realize how grateful I should be for everything I am privileged to in my everyday life. Before my STEP experience, I assumed that the desire to acquire an education wasn’t the strongest in such an underprivileged third world village. My STEP experience helped me realize that even people thousands of miles away have a similar priority: an education.


3. One event that led to this change was the basketball team of this school. My team went to this school and assumed that we would play games with the children; however, when we got there, the boys of the basketball team were studying. They realized that they could not go play basketball with us until they finished their studies for the day. Once we helped them study, we were allowed to play basketball with them. These very young children had already learned to prioritize their schoolwork over extracurricular activities.

An interaction that led to this change was with the full time missionaries we stayed with on our trip. It was amazing to me that these people could give up their entire lives to serve others. While at the school, they repeatedly told the young children their how smart they were. I quickly realized the impact of simply telling the students how smart they are; it can help propel them through their studies. I enjoyed watching the students become encouraged and excited about learning.

Another interaction I experienced in Guatemala was with a little girl named Iris. One day, I had extra food from my lunch and decided to share the food with the children. After giving the children my food, Iris gave me her 4 marbles. I was not expecting anything from any of the children, and yet Iris was generous enough to give me her marbles. Later that week, I gave her my sun glasses in return for her marbles. It was fun to watch her parade around the village in her new sunglasses. This interaction helped me realize that not only do the children of Guatemala have the ability to learn and get an education, but I also have the ability to learn from the children of Guatemala. The generosity of Iris was incredible, and it’s an experience I’ll never forget.


4. Although the main component of my mission trip was to build a chicken coop, the children in the school had the greatest impact on me. This transformational experience has made me very grateful for my education. I have truly learned to appreciate my education and take it very seriously because not everybody has access to such a great education in the United States. This development matters because it will affect my education for the rest of my life. I will continue to learn throughout my entire career and personal life; realizing the importance of this education will propel me for the rest of my life. My future plans are to continue working at GE Aviation full time, and so having this desire to obtain an education will help propel me through anything I could experience there. In the future, I hope to share my newfound gratitude for my education. I believe that with more experience at GE Aviation, I may be a resource to a young intern. Hopefully I would be able to inspire him like I was inspired this summer. The people of Guatemala were truly grateful for their education, and taught me that I should be too – an experience I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

Volunteering in Costa Rica

My STEP experience included a three- week service trip in San Jose, Costa Rica. I worked in a school for individuals with disabilities, from newborns to 22 years old. My specific placement was in a kindergarten classroom for children with hearing impairments. I assisted the teacher in the classroom’s daily activities and functioning.

Upon arriving in Costa Rica, I was taken back by how friendly and welcoming “Tico” culture is. The most challenging part about my experience began immediately after landing: the language barrier. I had taken Spanish classes all throughout high school, and sign language courses at OSU. However, being completely immersed in a new language was something I had never done. Not only was I trying to keep up with the Spanish language, but my sign language skills were also tested at my project. It was fascinating to learn not one, but two new cultures all at the same time.

Through these challenges and barriers, I learned that I could push myself further than I had ever imagined. I was given new tools and strategies to get throughout my day, and I was able to fully communicate with those around me. Before my trip to San Jose, I was not the most outgoing, adventurous person. I like to stick to routine and plan ahead. Although these organizational skills can be very beneficial in the right time and place, I think it is also important to learn how to go with the flow and be open to trying new things. Costa Rica opened my eyes to a new perspective and appreciation for things that may be outside of my comfort zone.

My favorite part of the experience was the diversity. I met so many different kinds of people from so many different backgrounds and places. Each relationship that was formed while I was in Costa Rica had an impact on my outlook and experiences. I worked Monday thru Friday and each weekend I was somewhere new. From mountains to waterfalls to beaches and volcanoes to rainforests- I feel like I saw it all. My host family was so loving and gracious to welcome me into their home. Marlene, my house mom, exposed me to many various Costa Rican dishes and made sure I visited her favorite destinations in San Jose. Most of all, I loved the volunteer community. New volunteers arrived each week, and with each person came other fascinating life goals from all over the world.

At my project, the students encouraged me to try my best to speak their language, and they influenced me to continue my sign language courses. They challenged me each day to learn new signs. I had to manage with what I knew, but it was fun to find alternate ways to express ourselves to one another. This new way of communicating was fascinating to me, and I plan to continue to push myself in this field.

This experience influenced me to constantly try new things. Whether it be a new place, new food, or introducing myself to someone new, I want to expose myself to as much as possible in my lifetime. Costa Rica influenced my life by showing me the extent of what I am capable of. I was able to immerse myself in a culture where I had two language barriers, and still managed to thrive in a way I would have never imagined. I believe that if I can problem solve that, then I can work my way towards anything I want to do. I hope to one day go back to Costa Rica and experience even more of their amazing “Tico” culture.

I had never been alone in such a completely immersed experience such as this one. I stretched and exceeded more than I thought I was capable of. This trip gave me confidence and encouragement to tackle any new experience with an open mind. I met so many amazing different people, each with different reasons for being on their trips. I learned to take life as it comes, enjoy the little things, and embrace every experience and encounter that I am given.

After this experience, I am more understanding and willing to learn about different ways of life. I was thrown alone into a culture, in which I didn’t know their language, customs, or city. At first, the unknown made me feel uneasy and scared, but I learned to adapt. In my future profession, Occupational Therapy, I hope that I can be empathetic to my patients who are afraid to try something new. A new lifestyle may be uneasy or scary, but after having been through this experience, I believe that I can help walk each person through it and ease his or her concerns.