News Item

Education & Psychology Students Change Lives in Guatemala

May 06, 2015

Ansley Newell '15, of Florence, enjoys the embrace of a youngster at a school in Santa Maria, Guatemala.

Children living near the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala are among the poorest, least educated and malnourished people one could meet. As most of the children — even those as young as ages 4 or 5 — are required to work long hours in fields to help support their families, their futures are not expected to take them past the lava flow.

Last May, the children’s lives were made immeasurably better by a 13-member group from Lander University. The group, composed of nine teacher education majors and two psychology majors, was led by Dr. Lee Vartanian, associate professor of teacher education, and Dr. Marie Nix, associate professor of psychology. 

Their journey was sparked by a partnership between Dr. Vartanian, who had been to Guatemala twice previously, and an organization known as the Phoenix Project. “The indigenous people of Guatemala tend to be last on the list of people being served by government programs, and the Phoenix Project is devoted to filling that void,” he explained.

“We were there to provide tutoring services for students and help the teachers in an indigenous Mayan school,” said Nix. “It’s important to note that native Guatemalans are separated from other communities socially and geographically. The families are the country’s poorest of the poor. Most of them live in huts with tin roofs, cloth walls and dirt floors. There are 23 different Mayan groups in the country, and while they all have their own language, they use rudimentary Spanish as their second language.”

Rooming with host families in Antigua, the Lander group made the 30-minute trip to the school shortly after breakfast. “We took a van up to Santa Maria, then walked to the school,” said Samantha Colman, a teacher education major from Anderson. “Once at the school, we would give bread to the children as they came into the school, then, once they had eaten, we would begin class.”

That meager morning meal was crucial for the children. “The piece of bread, slice of melon or bowl of porridge these children receive from their school is crucial for their health,” said Vartanian. “Remember, these children are from farming families whose total income is dependent upon if their crops come in. A recent drought nearly devastated them.”
Assisting the teachers went well beyond making photocopies. For one thing, there were no photocopiers. “Each child’s worksheet had to be prepared by hand,” said Ansley Newell, a teacher education major from Florence. As the teacher led the class, the Lander students provided one-on-one instruction in reading Spanish and English.

School was dismissed each day at noon so that the children could return to the fields.

As for the mix of teacher education and psychology disciplines on the trip? “The experience of working with these children gave our teacher education students an opportunity to see the types of environments or backgrounds that some of their future students will have experienced,” explained Vartanian.

The psychology students were able to hone their skills of observing people and their environment, and how the two are affected by each other.

 “Seeing the students and learning about their daily lives has helped me to feel more empathy and has helped me to become stronger in the face of difficulty,” said Stephanie Conley, an early childhood education major from Summerville.

Nix spoke of the children as “valuing relationships.” That’s an observation that was brought home to Newell. “Every day I was a human jungle gym. The kids would run to each of us and put their hands up to be held and tossed around. One little 4-year-old boy did not leave my side. I found out that he comes from an abusive home. Every day, I did not want him to walk out of the school but I had to watch him leave. Forever will his dimpled smile be in my heart. He is a great reminder of why I am becoming a teacher.”

Other students who went on the trip were: Mackenzie Areheart, of West Columbia; Nashari Brown, of Abbeville; Breanna Cook, of Lexington; Sam Fulmer, of Lexington; Brianna Pagano, of Deer Park, Ill.; Olivia Shaffer, of Pendleton; Heather Schryver, of Starr; and Zach Wilson, of Aiken.