Guatemala immersion one of many cultural immersion experiences at UW-Eau Claire

The Guatemala Social and Environmental Justice immersion trip is just one of many opportunities that students have to travel, learn, provide service, and grow.

Claire Schoenemann

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Photo by Jeff DeGrave

Students, along with program leader, Alex Vaeth, and a local De La Gente coffee farmer, raise one quintal of coffee. One quintal equals 100 pounds. Local coffee harvesters can fill several quintals in one day and will often carry two or more quintals by hand on foot to the local market to be sold.

The 2022 Guatemala Social and Environmental Justice Winterim Immersion trip is just one of the many cultural immersion experiences available to UW-Eau Claire students and faculty. 

The two-week immersion trip consisted of 15 Blugolds and two program leads, Alex Vaeth, an associate lecturer in languages at UW-Eau Claire, and Alison Millis, a business manager and analyst in the facilities department on campus. 

Jeff DeGrave, the intercultural immersions coordinator for UW-Eau Claire, went along for part of the trip as well. He formerly led the Guatemala immersions in previous years and was also a senior lecturer at UW-Eau Claire for 13 years in the geography department.

Vaeth explained the setup of the immersion, noting that students and faculty stay with host families for the first 10 days. During this time, trip members eat with their host families, learn about their culture, history and visit the historical area known as Antigua. 

DeGrave noted that this trip focuses on issues of race, power and the complicated history of US interventionism in Guatemala.

Interventionism relates to governmental interference in economic affairs. For instance, the U.S. invaded Guatemala in 1954, removing their elected president and leading to unrest in the area for various economical benefits in question. 

It was impactful to learn how deeply rooted the relationship between the US and Guatemala is, and how destructive it has been,” Vaeth said.

Vaeth also noted how impactful it was for many students to be able to see this history firsthand, especially with the limited knowledge that some students had. 

“I believe these sort of experiences are so impactful and so necessary to give not just students, but everybody a wider perspective. We just stay in one spot in the world, we tend to get a very limited understanding of how the entire world works” DeGrave said.

DeGrave continued on to note that although some may consider Guatemala a developing country, there is much that we can learn from indigenous populations and their culture. 

“Participating in study abroad and immersion helps you realize more of the things that you don’t know… there are certain things that are hard to learn here, particularly we don’t even know they exist,” said DeGrave.

DeGrave said the last time the program was run in 2020, he was an immersion program lead. DeGrave has played a role throughout the immersions, particularly working with the fair-trade organization, De La Gente.

De La Gente is a fair-trade coffee organization which strives to connect consumers, like UW-Eau Claire students, to the coffee which they consume in their day-to-day lives. 

This portion of the trip consists of the students final four days in Guatemala, where they begin working on a service-learning project for the community and coffee farmers of San Lucas Toliman.

DeGrave spoke about past projects that they have built upon, which all took place in San Lucas Toliman. 

DeGrave said during a previous trip, they built a pit for coffee bean shells to ferment and reuse, or in 2020, they expanded a wall for the kitchen to grow. This year, they worked on building a platform and secure place for the coffee depulper. 

Vaeth and DeGrave both expressed that this is an equally beneficial exchange, in which the local populations express what they could use our service for, and in turn share their knowledge with us. 

“We’re learning, they’re giving us knowledge about their history, their culture, they’re giving us knowledge about coffee production, they’re helping us work on our Spanish, they’re sharing their beautiful landscape with us,” Vaeth said. “We, as very underqualified construction workers, are pitching in our token of appreciation.” 

Both Vaeth and DeGrave urged students to explore the Cultural Immersion Experiences that UW-Eau Claire has to offer. 

DeGrave said that many students aren’t aware of the immersion opportunities available to them, and that almost all international immersions qualify for credit hours, other than the Guatemala immersion.

Additionally, international immersion trips provide traveling students with $500 of funding per week.

Domestic immersion programs, meaning they are contained within the nation, are funded up to 90% by the university. 

A popular and educational immersion, the civil rights pilgrimage, will be traveling the U.S. throughout spring break. There are also several international immersions running this summer to England, Great Britain, Scotland, Japan, China and more.

For more information about the Intercultural Immersions office, please visit their information page. 

Schoenemann can be reached at [email protected].