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Notes from the Field: Guatemala

From July 28- August 11, 17 Southern students explored the central highlands and rainforest of Guatemala under the direction of Drs. William Faraclas and Deborah Flynn as participants in the university’s long-standing International Field Studies in Health program.

Immersed in rich Guatemalan culture in three environments—a colonial town, rural villages and the rainforest of Tikal National Park—students examined social, cultural, political and economic determinants of health; health beliefs, practices and status; epidemiology; endemic diseases; environmental health; organization, financing and delivery of care; nutrition; Mayan health practices; and more.  The six-credit course is based on an experiential learning model.  In addition to attending classes, touring health facilities, and meeting with traditional and modern health practitioners, students enjoyed a great deal of direct contact with the people of Guatemala, who serve as cultural informants and sources of health information.

Every day was an adventure.  Memorable highlights included a day-long visit with a family in Santiago Zamora, whose home serves as the site of a women’s cooperative that supports education for the children of this mountainside village; a morning conversation with a traditional birth attendant (midwife) in San Juan de la Laguna, on the shore of scenic Lake Atitlán; an afternoon of service at Obras Sociales del Santo Hermano Pedro, a residential facility for Guatemalans with severe disabilities; and a sunrise tour of the rainforest at Tikal National Park, in which the health of the planet and biodiversity were central themes—in the presence of spider and howler monkeys, toucans flying overhead and many other creatures with whom we share the planet.

Field study participants also learned great lessons about diversity, culture, living conditions of the world’s majority, and the pernicious effects of poverty on health. Increased cultural sensitivity was an inescapable effect of this year’s trip, along with an expanded awareness of the commonalities of humanity.


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