Connecting Culture and Ecology in Guatemala – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

Connecting Culture and Ecology in Guatemala

A group of 20 HWS students recently returned from a three-week study abroad program in Guatemala. Led by Assistant Professor of Psychology Brien Ashdown and Associate Professor of Biology Meghan Brown, students explored the intersections between the culture and ecology of the country through a combination of field research and authentic cultural experiences.

“Our main goal was to try and support students as they start to think about culture and ecology as intrinsically linked concepts,” explains Ashdown. “I hope they came away from the experience understanding that the culture of a place and the geography and ecology of that place are interwoven to such an extent that it’s really impossible to understand one without the other.”

The first portion of the trip was spent in Antigua, where students lived with local families. Hannah Nichols ‘17 explains that a typical day consisted of four hours of Spanish class in the morning followed by three hours each afternoon spent leading lessons for children at a local school – Escuela Proyecto La Esperanza – which works to eliminate poverty through education and empowerment. HWS students led lessons on topics such as nutritional eating, sports, dance and bird migration.

“I think the service aspect is important for a program like this because it gets the HWS students involved with local people on a very personal level,” says Ashdown. “This kind of experiential education is incredibly important.”

The group also went on several excursions while in Antigua, including visits to a macadamia farm, a weaving factory, and a jade factory, as well as Chichacastenango, the largest regional market in Guatemala. They also hiked an active volcano, Pacaya Volcano, and visited the Mayan ruins of Tikal.

“We learned about different ways that people use their culture to make a living for themselves and their family,” says Nichols, a psychology major.

Mary Buck ‘17, also a psychology major, gained a new outlook on various cultures as a result of being “immersed in the culture and language that the classroom experience does not offer otherwise.”

After 10 days in Antigua, the group spent the remainder of the trip in Santa Catarina where they conducted research to better understand the complexity of issues involved with the water quality of Lake Atitlan and the health of the region. Taking an interdisciplinary approach, students used social science techniques – such as interviewing local residents – as well as natural science techniques, including working with local scientists to sample and test water, and explore the environmental issues that face the region. 

“This type of embedded learning pushed students to gain a deeper knowledge while in Guatemala and then use those skills as they tackle other complex problems during their time on campus and in their future,” Brown says.

Both Brown and Ashdown have conducted research on Lake Atitlan in the past. Last summer, the duo spent two weeks conducting research with a cohort of five professors from the New York Six Liberal Arts Consortium. They studied various aspects of an indigenous community located on the lake and then compared the data to research conducted in upstate New York.