In May 2016 I traveled with a group to Antigua, Guatemala to begin a service trip. Each day my group and I traveled to a local school just outside of Antigua to begin our work. At the work site, I performed jobs dictated by local masons. Most of the work was construction oriented, such as, mixing concrete, cutting wires, carrying bricks, and collecting scrap wood. The goal of the construction was to add an additional, second-story classroom on to the school. By adding this classroom, more children from the neighborhood could attend school and work towards getting an education. While most of the time was spent aiding the masons in manual labor, there was some down time during the day in which we were able to play games with the school’s students. This was an awesome way to connect with the work that I was doing.
Before travelling to Guatemala, I had never been outside the United States. The only expectations I had came from pieces of information I had acquired from media sources and the internet. I assumed that Guatemalan culture would be much different from what I was used to and that it would be hard to adapt to, even for just a week, to the cultural differences in Guatemala. Further, I believed I would be unable to communicate with the locals. I lacked confidence in my ability to speak and understand Spanish, and I was worried I would be unable to work effectively with the Guatemalan workers because of this hindrance.
Once arriving in Antigua, I realized that many of my assumptions had been misguided. During this amazing experience I learned much about myself and my ability to adapt to situations. My initial fears about acclimating to Guatemalan culture were quelled shortly upon our arrival. The people in Antigua were extremely inviting and were willing to share bits and pieces of their culture with our group. When it came to my ability to understand the language, I realized I had shortchanged myself. Although I did sometimes have difficulty understanding some of the conversations with Spanish speakers, I had a better grasp on the language than I thought. As a result, I became more confident in my ability and was more willing to communicate with the Spanish speaking individuals. Even at times when I was unable to understand something, there were other ways to effectively communicate with others.
While in Antigua, there were several people and instances that aided in my transformation. First, our group spent a good amount of time immersing ourselves in the culture of Antigua. We walked around the town, looking around buildings, shops, and taking time to watch the procession of some everyday events such as weddings and quinceañeras. Additionally, we ate several meals in cafes, and even took salsa lessons at a dance studio not far from our home stay. During most of these experiences, we met Antiguans that were excited to share bits and pieces of their culture with us. This aided in my adaptation to the culture, as I was able to learn a little more about the people and the society we had entered. I realized that although Guatemalan culture is extremely unique, it functions on many of the same principles and values as I am custom to in the United States. This vastly shifted my world-view as I saw the more interconnectedness on a global level.
My host mother, Amparo, was another individual that was influential in my transformation. Each day our group would come back to our home stay from the job site and Amparo would have dinner waiting for us. During dinner, Amparo would talk to us about our day. Although she didn’t speak English, we always had interesting conversation and she met myself and my group members with patience as we attempted to communicate our day’s experiences in Spanish. It was through our everyday dinner conversations that I realized my assumption about my Spanish speaking ability had been wrong. I was able to follow much of the conversation and even contribute with some responses. This encouragement increased my resolve to communicate more in Spanish.
Lastly, the school’s children aided in my transformation. These children were the happiest children I had ever seen, with creative imaginations that were constantly making up games. Most of them knew very little English and could often not understand my sub-par Spanish, but they still loved to get me and the other volunteers involved in their play time. During these times, I learned how to bridge communication gaps in other ways. It became clear with the children, that it didn’t matter if we could speak to each other, it was more important that we were laughing and having fun together. This was a big take away for me because I often worry about how I will be able to communicate with individuals that don’t speak English in my future career. These kids gave me confidence that I am able to communicate even without common language.
This transformation is important to my goal to become a physician. As a physician, I will have to be able to effectively communicate and work alongside colleagues and patients that my come from a different culture or speak a different language. The confidence that I now have in myself to be able to adapt to situations such as these, and find ways to communicate with others will be vitally important for my role in this career. This transformation will also make me a better global citizen in general. Before travelling to Guatemala, I had never been outside the country. I had assumptions of what life outside the United States looked like, but until my trip, I never had an accurate depiction. After travelling to Guatemala and having the experience I did, I understand better the importance of global relations and acquiring perspectives outside of my own everyday life. Overall, Guatemala transformed my view of myself and my connection to the global community as a whole.