For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to Antigua, Guatemala through Buck-i-Serv from May 7th to May 14th. Through non-profit organizations HANDS and Constru Casa, I worked with local masons and fellow Buckeyes to build a two story classroom building at a local school for young children. Throughout the five days, we worked from 8:30-4 doing various construction tasks. At the end of the week, we finished all structures for the first floor.
Some simple scaffolding being built at the beginning of the week
The first story, now with many support beams. The next steps included laying the rest of the concrete blocks and pouring cement.
I had never been to another country to do service work and with Guatemala being under-developed and impoverished in places, I didn’t know quite what to expect. After working with the local masons, living with a host family, and just exploring the country, I was humbled and realized how lucky I am to have such simple things as clean water and a bed. I also had never been to a country where I was primarily around people who spoke a different language. Besides my fellow Buckeyes and the Constru Casa partners, mostly everyone spoke Spanish including our host mom, the local masons, the children at the school, and various townspeople. I had never taken Spanish before so there was a language barrier for me. Because of this, I was more inclined to learn the basics and to ask my Spanish-speaking friends how to properly ask questions or say phrases. I noticed that even with the language barrier, I still connected with the locals as they were willing to help me understand words I was struggling with. We also would laugh at certain situations and could connect sometimes without speaking. Because of this, I feel I gained an appreciation for this different culture and the non-verbal communication methods that all humans can understand. These were just a few aspects of many that made the experience incredible yet transformative.
When I first arrived in Guatemala, it was apparent that the country was less developed than America. On the first van ride, I noticed that the air had a constant diesel smell due to the pollution and the roads were extremely uneven and bumpy. After getting settled in at our house, we walked around the town square area where crowds of locals were selling souvenirs to tourists. It was surprising to me that many of these vendors were just small children, likely trying to make quick money for their families. Though the area around our host home in Antigua was more developed and touristy, we drove through a more impoverished part of the country on the way to one of our tourist destinations. This area had a much higher population density and there were many small shack-like houses crammed together. Experiencing all of these conditions made me grateful to have such seemingly simple things like clean air, paved roads, and a comfortable home.
Our host home in Antigua
Something else that prompted a change in my perception was seeing the culture and traditions of another country. I have visited other countries before but the areas I saw were either very limited and touristy or similarly cultured and developed like the US. Being in Guatemala, I was completely immersed in the culture and the land and was able to appreciate these differences. The area around our host home had several really neat historic churches and on one of our first days, we hiked to see Cerra de la Cruz and were able to look down and see the entire town. This was one of the first experiences that made me appreciate the scenery and culture.
At Cerra de la Cruz, with Antigua in the background
Other experiences included watching girls take Quinceañera pictures, vising local shops, enjoying authentic Guatemalan food, visiting the nearby Lake Atitlan and exploring surrounding islands, and hiking Volcan Pacaya. Making it to the top and seeing all the surrounding volcanoes was awe-inspiring and one of the coolest adventures I have ever embarked on. It is things like these that I would not be able to experience in America and therefore am really grateful to have been able to do abroad.
At the top of Volcan Pacaya!
Probably one of the most important and transformative experiences I took part in was the actual service work building the classroom. The things I did included shoveling dirt, tying and cutting wire, cutting rebar, mixing and pouring cement, laying concrete blocks and structural supports, and completing several other small jobs. It was so cool to see our progress and to watch the supports and ceiling of the classroom come together. We constructed almost all the small components used in the bigger structural supports which was neat because it wasn’t like we just received all the parts and laid them down, we actually built them. Some of the jobs we did like mixing/demolishing concrete and sawing rebar were a lot more strenuous than other jobs like cutting and tying hundreds of wires, which were more tedious. No matter the job, I definitely felt the physical effects at the end of each day, which was so worth it and made me appreciate the kind of work that the masons do every day.
Sawing one inch rebar was one of the more strenuous jobs!
One last thing that I enjoyed so much and am so grateful for was the opportunity to connect and work with such kind, dedicated, and helpful people, whether it was my fellow Buckeyes, the five local masons, the children at the school, or members of our host family. I made some great friends and learned a lot about everyone and what they gained from the service trip, working towards a common goal really brought us close together. I was very humbled by the masons, as they were all extremely kind and very patient, especially with those of us who did not speak Spanish and had some trouble understanding what to do. I eventually picked up on common phrases and vocab but even with the language barrier, I could still connect with them, whether it was by laughing at a funny moment together or learning things through hand gestures. It is incredible that they do this kind of construction work every day and were still effective and patient even when a group of primarily English-speaking college students was thrown into the mix. By the end of the week, we had learned a lot about them and their individual personalities and it was cool to see both parties become more and more comfortable with each other in the work environment. They truly made the whole experience unforgettable and I am so happy that I got to work with them on this project.
Our last day working with the masons was bittersweet
While at the school, many of the classes would have recess and groups of young kids would come out to the courtyard to play games. Most times, we took our break then and were able to join them in playing tag, jump roping, and other activities. Some of the girls would hold my hand while playing games or they’d spend half their recess taking selfies and pictures of others on my phone. I thought this was so sweet and it made me happy to know that I was helping to build a classroom for these accepting, kind children.
The girls were so sweet and loved taking pictures
Our host mom Ampora was also incredibly kind and so motherly, making us homemade meals throughout the week, seeing us off to work in the morning, and opening up her home to us in general. We were actually in Guatemala over Mother’s Day and were able to give her a small gift and a card that we all signed. It was sweet to see her reaction and I’m glad we could show her how thankful we all were for what she was doing. This project would not have been nearly as amazing if it weren’t for the people I met in Guatemala, they are what really made the experience transformative for me and I’ll always remember their kindness.
Ampora reading our Mothers Day card
While this experience did not relate directly to my major (biomedical engineering), I still got to experience what hands-on service was like, solidifying the idea to do more projects in the future. I really enjoyed the construction aspect and the process of doing and making things as opposed to more sedentary work. This parallels the type of job I would like to have someday. Designing, building, and creating medical devices is very different than doing construction work on a classroom building, but there are similarities in that both are hands-on, require patience and attention to detail, and ultimately help those in need. That was the main goal of this service trip and I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to do that while also exploring a beautiful country.