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Students Focus on Public Health in Guatemala
Anna Oltman ’11 plays with children in a rural area outside of Solola, Guatemala.
They immersed themselves in Guatemalan culture, roasted marshmallows at the top of a volcano and even rode “chicken buses.” But for eight Franklin & Marshall students who traveled to Guatemala over winter break, the memory of bringing about positive change was most lasting.
The students took part in F&M’s alternative winter break in Guatemala in early January, identifying service gaps in the nation’s health system and educating citizens on basic health issues. The group spent two weeks at three different work sites, working in association with Social Entrepreneur Corps, an organization whose mission is to design and implement entrepreneurial solutions in rural and developing countries. The Ware Institute for Civic Engagement organized the trip.
Their two-week journey through Guatemala took the students to Antigua, Lake Atitlan and Nebaj. They learned about the existing health system in Guatemala, provided needs assessments and helped local entrepreneurs promote and sell products that improve public health.
Chelsea Schein ’11, who has a background in needs assessment after serving on the HIV/AIDS Community Planning Group in Harrisburg, says cultural differences often stood in the way of better health practices in Guatemala.
“We thought refrigeration would be a good issue to emphasize with local residents,” Schein says. “But what we viewed as a public-health issue, they viewed as a business. They wanted to use refrigeration to chill drinks for sale.” Schein also noted that residents did not always make use of their resources, including clean water.
Franklin & Marshall students pose with their Guatemalan partners in Nebaj during their two-week alternative winter break. The students identified service gaps in Guatemala's health system and educated citizens on basic health issues.
Several students appreciated the practical nature of the trip, allowing them to witness the things that benefit individuals and small communities. “I will always remember the first campaign we went on, way out in the mountains, and it seemed like everyone in the village came to get an eye exam to see if they needed glasses,” says Anna Oltman ’11. “It was a clear need, they just didn’t have access to it.”
Joining Schein and Oltman on the trip were Thomas Axon ’10, Kevin Doubleday ’11, Brittany Guidos ’14, Elena Lopez ’12, Kelly Marchisio ’12 and Kim Worcester ’11.
For Lopez, the state of Guatemala’s public-health system was eye-opening. “None of the clinics we visited were near U.S. standards, all presenting the same dilemma of being understaffed and lacking medicine to distribute to patients,” Lopez says. “Most of the clinics were private institutions, because the government doesn’t allocate the funds necessary for public health.”
The students stayed with local families and took local transportation—including “chicken buses,” converted school buses with compact seating arrangements—to local health clinics. They also ventured up one of Guatemala’s most active volcanoes, roasting marshmallows over hot volcanic rocks.
But those adventures were secondary to the lessons they learned.
“Guatemala struggles to provide its people with many of the basic needs people take for granted in the U.S.,” says Worcester, who has an interest in medicine and global public health. “Clean water, edible fresh fruits and vegetables, medications and immunizations, to name a few. At the same time, I witnessed the health facilities in Guatemala struggling with fundamental issues similar to those facing the U.S. health-care system, such as accessibility of health care.”