Christianson Grant recipient Aaron M. is back from his 8-month volunteering trip to Guatemala. Aaron shares some of his amazing experiences studying Spanish and working with three different social work and educational volunteer organizations in Guatemala:
"For the first 4 weeks, I intensely studied Spanish 5 hours a day, 5 days a week. At times, the sheer amount of material I was learning was beyond daunting, but with focus and patience it began to get easier. I found I was making progress communicating more and more complicated ideas. During the weekends I took the time to explore the surrounding landscape on foot or by bicycle. I was so astonished at the incredible beauty of the volcanic landscape intermixed with corn fields and small towns. At times, I felt as if I had walked into a postcard: the stark beauty, the smiling people dressed in the most ornate colorful clothing, the corn-covered hills surrounding the bustling city where I lived. Quetzaltenagno, commonly called Xela (prenounced shela) is a city of about 250,000 people, over 50% of them K'iche Mayan. The city epitomizes the collision of old tradition and modernism. This was ever apparent with the many old Mayan women I saw dressed in traditional colorful handmade clothing jabbering away on cell phones in K'iche. Xela lies in a mountain valley surrounded by towering volcanic peaks and ancient (and not so ancient) lava flows. At over 7,000 feet in the valley, the climate is quite mild, much like the Northwest of the US except that there are only two seasons, rainy and dry. I later learned that they call the highlands, where Xela is, the land of perpetual spring, and now I understand why. After four weeks at the school, I successfully "graduated" with an intermediate level certificate from the school. My Spanish still had a long way to go, but now I could at least barter in the market and get around the country without being unintentionally rude. My month of intense study was over and I was off again.
I have so many stories from this trip, each a rich experience that has impacted my life in countless ways. I am so amazed at the strength, perseverance, patience and optimism of the Guatemalan people even in the face of what was the most destructive rainy season of the last 60 years. Through it all, the people I met there have a joy for life that I think us Norte Americanos could learn from. I already miss the land of the Quetzal, but at the same time, I'm enjoying looking back at Guatemala through a different lens that comes from being home. I'm sure, like most other things in life, what this trip means to me now will change as the years pass by. But one thing is for sure, Guatemala has left its' mark on my soul forever!"
A fan of independent cinema and proponent of the Oxford comma, Matthew began his career at a Miami-based tech startup before returning to West Virginia University to pursue his M.A. in Foreign Languages. He has worked at InterExchange since 2006 and currently serves as a Marketing Project Manager.