Making the world feel a little closer: RJC celebrates 20 years of student trips to Guatemala

Apr 11, 2023 | RJC News, Student Story

There was a moment, after Nora Linsley first walked into the home of her host family in Guatemala, where everyone just stood in the kitchen. They all looked at each other wondering “what do we do now?”

She and several other students had just arrived at the home where they would stay for the next three nights. They didn’t share a common language. Nobody had figured out how to communicate with each other yet. “It was definitely a little scary at first,” Nora said. But it didn’t take long before they figured out how to get to know each other.

“You could connect over things, even if you didn’t speak the same language,” says Kayley Mireau, another student on the trip. We brought pictures of our family and we would point and be like, ‘this is like our mom or dad.’” Or when they watched one of their host sisters work on her beading, the students would ask how to say different colours, or what the word for beautiful was. “It was just cool to connect over learning different languages together,” Kayley said.

While just one small moment from their 10 days in Guatemala, those kinds of exchanges get at the heart of the trips RJC students take during Alternative Learning and Service Opportunities (ALSO) week. These inter-cultural connections are a chance to serve others, but also a chance to learn more about the world, and broaden their worldview through the connections made with others.

This year marked the 20th time that RJC has taken a group of students for a learning and service opportunity in Guatemala. The first trip took place in 2000 when Lorne Friesen first had the idea. As a teacher Lorne believed that education was much bigger than just a classroom with textbooks. “RJC had the slogan ‘Education with a Plus’,” he says, “And I was hoping that plus included experiencing cultures much different than what we were used to as a way to help us better understand and appreciate the role we have in this world.”

To plan that first trip he worked together with Rob Cahil who was serving in Guatemala with Mennonite Central Committee at the time. They worked together to bring students from RJC and Westgate Mennonite Collegiate to Guatemala to serve and learn from the Kechi people in Alta Verapaz. The students worked side by side with Kechi students in their agriculture program and worked on excavation for a new soccer field. But more importantly the Canadian students learned more about the history of Guatemala, and the challenges faced by a country that had just come through a war and was implementing a new peace accord. The group from RJC heard challenging stories, including the negative impacts that North American corporations had in Guatemala.

That kind of learning and shifting of perspectives has remained part of the program over the years. Adriana Koehn worked with MCC in Guatemala as the Connecting Peoples Coordinator for five years and helped facilitate the RJC trips while she was in the role. She said that while there usually was a work component to the trip, the larger goal was the opportunity for education and to connect people with each other. “We [at MCC] talked a lot about this idea of being global citizens and understanding contexts and cultures different than our own, for the visiting groups, and then the local communities,” she said. “Connecting individuals and hearing each other’s reality and stories and how that can be a powerful tool.”

For Nora and Kayley on this year’s trip there were lots of those moments of connection. Learning to make tortillas in the kitchen with their host family. Playing soccer with kids from the community, and heading to the corner store afterwards to buy candy. Asking for help with learning new spanish words. Painting together with people from the local community, and finding ways to laugh even without a shared language.

For Nora, the experience gave her a new perspective on how connected the global community can be. “It’s easy to think that Guatemala is so far away. And the people speak a totally different language, they wear different clothing, they have a completely different culture and traditions,” she said. “But then going there you realize that even though we are people that are so different we still share so many similar experiences …. And even though you’re so different, you could connect with those little things. And it just makes the world feel a lot closer.”