I have always known that I wanted to studying abroad at some point in college. I never had any one place in mind — my only specification was that the country should be Spanish-speaking, since I am a Spanish major. Then, by accident, I learned about a program based in Guatemala for the upcoming semester. The timing couldn’t have been better — from the day I found out about it, I had just 25 days to fully apply and commit to the program. Who knows, if I had more time to think it through, maybe I would have backed out. Traveling alone to live and study for three months in an unknown country? I had never done anything like that before in my life!
I couldn’t be more grateful to myself from last October for making that hasty, stupid, beautiful decision. This past semester was undoubtedly the most influential of my life. I lived with a host family in a small colonial town called Antigua. My host mother Maudi was an absolute delight. For every meal, she sat at the table with the other two students and me and talked with us in Spanish. Her entire family was lovely and welcoming, and her home is just beautiful — open air courtyard, plants and flowers and art everywhere. I could see one of the nearby volcanoes, Fuego, from the terrace, and every morning the bells of the old church across the street would toll.
There were only six students in the program, which made for a close-knit, casual, and conducive learning experience. I made two lifelong friends in this group, and every day I miss them dearly. Our school was also located in Antigua, just a few blocks from Maudi’s house. I am very fortunate to have had the opportunity to learn under the professors from this program. They are all Guatemalan, passionate, and experts in their fields. I worked with my anthropology professor and his colleague, a historian and professor at the University of San Carlos in Guatemala City, to complete an independent study on the role that anticommunism played in the genocides of the indigenous Maya people during the civil war. On top of the classes that I took, I also volunteered and interned at a local organic farm, Caoba Farms, and a non-profit hospital and daycare called las Obras Sociales de San Hermano Pedro.
Besides life in Antigua, I had the opportunity to travel all over Guatemala throughout the semester, independently from the program. My new friends and I had so many wild adventures and met people from all over the world. I swam in a cave by the light of a candle and played in clear turquoise pools surrounded by jungle in Semuc Champey; I hiked up the volcano Pacaya; I kayaked and jumped off cliffs at Lake Atitlan; I navigated the bustling highland indigenous market of Chichicastenango; I visited various Mayan ruins, including Tikal, where they shot a scene from Star Wars!
My study abroad experience in Guatemala was the best thing that I have ever done for myself. Never have I encountered so much newness in my life — a new culture, new people, everything. I feel that I grew so much in that time. I miss Guatemala and all of the wonderful people that I met there every single day.
Heather Dietrich is Humanities and Spanish double major. She spent a semester studying abroad in Guatemala through a University of Arizona program.
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