Students, Faculty Reflect on J-Term Course in Guatemala and Belize

In January, 12 students joined Dr. Craig Spencer, professor of biology, and Dr. Dave O’Hara, associate professor of philosophy, for a one-month immersion experience in a real-time living laboratory located nearly 3,000 miles from campus.

This is their story.

The J-term course was called “Tropical Ecology of Guatemala and Belize, and Spanish Immersion.”

In Belize, students spent time on the Belize Barrier Reef, the second largest coral reef system in the world. In Guatemala, they lived with host families in San José, a small village nestled deep in the rainforest. They studied the ecologies of both plants and animals — along with human ecology, learning about the ancient Mayan culture and serving as volunteers in a rural medical clinic.

Because no one in San José speaks English, the students also honed their Spanish speaking skills, communicating entirely in Spanish throughout the experience.

Nature’s Classroom

A highlight of the experience was a three-day, 40-mile trek through a tropical rainforest in Guatemala. It was a chance, O’Hara said, for the group to experience biodiversity in its truest form.

“On this trek, we were just walking and talking — sometimes just walking in silence," O’Hara said.

"We were smelling the air, seeing new species of butterflies, hearing animals off in the woods we couldn’t identify, seeing all there is to see. You can see 500 species of birds in a few square miles; we saw insects we’ve never seen before — I don’t know how we could reproduce that in a lab."

—  Dr. David O'Hara

“We had 13 students holding hands —and could barely stretch — around one mahogany tree that was probably 1,000 years old,” Spencer said. “Above us was the bejuco de agua (translated as “water vine”) forming a canopy over the forest. If you cut this vine and point it toward the ground, you can drink water out of it.”

“The vine itself has fascinating vascular tissue that forms a natural cross pattern. It’s absolutely gorgeous. You can actually harvest the vine without damaging the ecological integrity of the forest,” Spencer said, explaining that the J-term group is now involved in a project with San José artisans to make jewelry from the plant.

Back on campus, the group is working with students in Jaciel Keltgen’s marketing class to market the jewelry.

“All of the money raised goes back to the women of the community who have very few opportunities for employment. Other proceeds will go to protect the forest where this vine grows,” Spencer said.

Learn more about the jewelry project at

Values in Action

This was Spencer’s eighth time teaching the course in Guatemala.

“One of the things that attracted me (to the area) is the tight-knit community of indigenous people there. There’s a stronghold of the Maya people who are living in San José. They are gentle, generous and loving people. They are very interested in sharing what they’ve maintained about their culture, their language, and their forest with others — especially our students,” he said.

What the people of San José shared, O’Hara said, relates back to Augustana’s five Core Values.

“This class lets us live all those values out. We think it’s important to love our neighbor, to engage in community, to celebrate the liberal arts,” O’Hara said. “When we go to Guatemala, we rent rooms from local people. We learn about their families. We learn what they have that we lack and vice versa. We hear their stories. We see how they structure their family life. We go to where they work. We watch how they get and prepare their food. We visit their schools and clinics. We learn about what they do to understand what they need and what we can offer.”

“We do all these things not because we think we can save them — but because we think it’s important to know them. They have a rich culture and strong family ties. We want our students to see that. We want our students to get to know them.”

"It really gave us a big picture idea of what it's like to live in Guatemala," said biology and Spanish major Dan Schmidtman.

Spencer said the group also spends time living out another of Augustana’s core values — service.

“We’ve been there enough times to establish deep relationships with the community. Every year, our students are involved in service work at a small health clinic in San José,” he said. “And during fall semester, before we leave, we do fundraisers on campus to raise money to buy supplies to bring with us.”

“In rural Guatemala, clinics look a little different than they do in Sioux Falls. Getting an opportunity to see what health care is like in a rural setting is a powerful experience for our students."

— Dr. Craig Spencer

Biology and Spanish major Alex Eich said the chance to work in the clinic provided her with valuable real world experience.

"Basically my dream is to work in a community that is just varied and actually making a difference in providing high quality health care for a bunch of different populations," she said. 

The group also spent time studying the history of the land and its people.

“We studied the different ways people have used the land, and the pressures on the land today. Doing this allows us to ask questions about our own politics and our economics. We also spent time studying their ancient history. We saw Maya temples and ruins that are 1,000 years old and saw the uses people are making of those places today,” O’Hara said.

Study Abroad: The Ultimate Cultural Exchange

Studying abroad, O’Hara said, leaves a lasting impact.

“When you go to a new place and see new things — that’s hard to forget. Our students learned about ways of life that are new to them. When you watch another culture, it gives you the opportunity to come home to your own culture and re-examine it with a new set of eyes.

“Studying abroad is very patriotic — students learn how we depend on other countries and how other countries depend on us. They learn what it means when we send soldiers, ambassadors, or aid workers abroad. The next time they vote, they’ll think about how our foreign policies affect the people they met here,” he said.

Spencer said he believes the experience of studying abroad is life-changing.

“On the way there, students are excited about the place. On the way back, they’re talking about the people they met — the people and their families. They’re talking about how they learned how to make tortillas by hand and cook them on a wood fire. They’re talking about the stories shared around the dinner table. They talk about what life is like in this remote village in this part of Guatemala — how different our communities are, but how similar they are, too."

— Dr. Craig Spencer

“It’s amazing to see the faces on the students when they meet their host families for the first time,” Spencer said. “They’re staying in homes that might have dirt floors; might have an outhouse. Their homes certainly don’t have kitchens like most students are used to.

“At first, you might feel sorry for people who are living in such poverty,” he said. “But, when they leave, often times the students are crying when they leave because they realize how rich life is there; how close the families are. Families of four generations living in one house – passing on knowledge, sharing hopes and dreams. It’s quite a cultural exchange.”

The course made an impact on biology major Evan Meyer.

"You hear about the poverty, you hear a whole lot of negative statistics and I think when you see that you just get this one small side of the picture. You don't get to understand the people, you don't truly understand the culture. You can hear about it, but it doesn't register or mean anything to you until you see it; until you try to live it even for a short time," Meyer said. 

Kelly Sprecher
Director of Media Relations