Virginia Commonwealth University

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Education Abroad

Emma Scarvey

Emma Scarvey in Guatemala.

Destination: Guatemala
Major: Communication Arts

What were the primary factors that influenced your decision to study abroad?

I have always had a passion for experiencing new cultures, and view studying abroad as an incredible way to do so while connection my experiences with my major. I hope to take advantage of as many study abroad opportunities as I can while at VCU. As a student, I think that now is the optimal time to travel and expand my horizons while continuing my degree.

What program and destination did you choose and why?

I chose the Guatemala Art Education study abroad program because it combined one of my passions with the opportunity to experience a culture I knew little about. I was greatly attracted to the service component of the trip, and was looking forward to gaining some teaching experience.

What classes did you take while abroad and how would you compare them to taking courses on campus at VCU?

I was enrolled in an art education course while abroad. It was an incredibly different experience, as my “classroom” was constantly changing. My teachers included accompanying VCU professor Jan Johnson, as well as my peers, host family, the faculty at our host schools, and even our students. Though the week prior to the trip had been dedicated to preparation, most of what I learned was in practice rather than theory. Even with five days being dedicated to classroom observation, it was an engaging and hands on learning experience.

What were your expectations before you went? How did those change once you arrived in your host country?

I had very few preconceived ideas of what I would encounter as I walked off the airplane in Guatemala. I had known very little about the country before I decided to apply, and most of my knowledge of the language and culture was gained a few weeks before the trip. I had learned many statistics about Guatemalan literacy and education, and had read of the conflict that had ravaged the country only a few years ago. However, after being there for less than a day, I quickly realized how many facets of indigenous Guatemalan culture would have been impossible to describe in a week. Traces of American culture were some of the things I least expected to encounter. These included chain restaurants such as McDonald’s, Justin Beiber posters in store windows, and the condemned American school buses used for Guatemala’s public transportation system. I quickly came to realize that Guatemala was not isolated from the intercultural exchange that comes with globalization.

What was the biggest challenge you faced while adjusting to your host country?

The language barrier was probably the most frustrating challenge for me while in Guatemala. I new almost no Spanish when I arrived, and I disliked having to rely to heavily on a translator and my classmates for communication. However, this definitely encouraged me to spend extra time with my Spanish-English dictionary, and I was forced to become more outgoing and animated when interacting with others.

How has your experience changed your future academic and career goals?

Though I am not on the Art Education track any longer, my two weeks in Guatemala definitely had a powerful influence on me as an individual. I am hoping to take Spanish next semester, and would love to return as an English teacher someday. Painting is a tremendous part of the Comalapan community, and it has produced several globally recognized artists. Meeting some of these painters and learning of how highly they valued visual communication and self-expression was extremely inspiring to me as an artist.

What contact did you have with students from the host country? Other international and American students?

While I was not attending an actual university in Guatemala, I still got the opportunity to come into contact with other Guatemalan and American students my own age. In Antigua, we met other American students who were spending a semester or more living with host families in the area and assisting with various community projects. One of the elementary school teachers we worked with also was a part time student at a university in Guatemala. She traveled there every week to better her English skills in order to become more a more competent teacher for her students. It was humbling and inspiring to meet a girl my own age working a full time job as a teacher while struggling to complete her own education in order to help others with their own.

How did you integrate into the culture and meet members of the host community (community events, extracurricular activities, etc.)?

We had many meetings and functions with the faculty at the schools in which we worked, some for lesson planning and others to celebrate and share each other’s culture. We were fortunate to have wonderful hosts who were excited to welcome us into their homes and show us around their community. We had teachers invite us to dinner with their families, and our host family made sure to make us familiar with cooking and eating traditional Guatemalan cuisine. On the weekends when we toured Antigua and Panajanchel, we had the opportunity to explore and immerse ourselves in local culture.

What were your most memorable experiences?

My most memorable experiences were definitely in the classrooms of CEFORMA and Escuela de Arte. Many of the children we worked with were highly aware of the value and importance of their education. A fourteen-year-old girl attending the painting school explained she walked the eight kilometers to class everyday after work when her parents could no longer afford to send her to a regular high school.

In class, sharing self-written stories revealed the how deeply the turbulent history of Guatemala permeates the lives of people today. A seven-year-old boy chose to write and illustrate the story of his grandfather, who was taken away by the military after secretly aiding guerrilla troops. Despite his family’s efforts to locate his grandfather, he was never seen again. This story of a missing family member is common in many Guatemalan communities, and was heart wrenching to hear being retold by someone so young but so aware of his country’s history.

If you could do it all over, would you choose the same study abroad program again?

I would most definitely choose the same study abroad program again. I am hoping to get the opportunity to spend a semester abroad in another area of the world, but I am eager to go back to Comalapa. However, I wish the program had been longer for than two weeks.

For you, what are the benefits of studying abroad?

Studying abroad allowed me to experience a new culture while continuing my degree in a very hands-on approach. It gave me a new perspective of my own culture, as well as of another. I think the experience ultimately helped me become more of a critical thinker, and more knowledgeable of the artistic traditions of a culture outside the United States.

How has your study abroad experience helped your language skills?

Though I had no prior experience with Spanish, I was surprised with how much I picked up during our short two weeks in Guatemala. Having to teach in front of a classroom and speak clearly for a translator also helped me become a more articulate person in general. Also, learning to speak an unfamiliar language in such a short amount of time helped me to practice enunciating. This trip inspired me to take Spanish this upcoming semester.

How has your study abroad experience changed your worldview?

I think being in Guatemala gave reality to the statistics and summarized history I read prior to leaving. It made me aware of my own culture, and the many privileges I have access to as an American citizen. Also, it made me more cognizant in general of the history and current events in Central America, as well as this region’s relationship to the United States.

How has your study abroad experience changed your perception of your own culture?

It has made me more appreciative of many of the privileges I have access to that are not guaranteed in other parts of the world. My study abroad experience also made me more aware of other cultures’ perception of America, as well as my role as a student on a service trip to another country. Though we were repeatedly thanked for coming and spending our time in Comalapa, I became aware of the limitations on what I had to offer, especially in two short weeks. At times it seemed that my American passport made me appear to have certain qualifications and authority on classroom instruction that I felt I lacked.

What do you wish you had been told before you studied abroad?

To bring layers and medicine, just as a precaution. As the trip was during summer break, I forgot to consider that it would be winter on the other side of the equator! I also unfortunately spent my first week trying to get over a terrible cold. However, buying medicine at a Guatemalan ‘farmacia’ was definitely a memorable experience.

What would you say to a student who is not considering studying abroad?

They should definitely reconsider because studying abroad is a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think it becomes difficult after college to find opportunities to travel and truly immerse yourself in another country’s culture. It is also an invaluable educational experience that everyone should take advantage of while in college.

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