Community service meets study abroad adventure in Guatemala
Unique experience builds more than houses
It all started about seven years ago with two students and one big idea.
What evolved is a program that continues to benefit SAIT students and families in Guatemala today.
"We had a couple of students who wanted to do something different, somewhere different for their capstone project," says Marc Bussiere, Instructor, Architectural Technologies, School of Construction, and trip organizer.
The pair connected with an NGO in Guatemala called Mayan Families and came up with an idea that fulfilled their quest to tackle a capstone project outside of Calgary — creating an architectural program to convert a building into a technical school.
Their design work, drawings and 3D model provided the necessary documents to facilitate the fundraising for the school - and the relationship with Mayan Families resulted in a study abroad program that has grown exponentially.
"We had such a good connection thanks to the students that, the year after, we went back to Guatemala with 14 students," says Bussiere. "It's continued to build since."
The philanthropic study tour, now known as the PANA Service Learning program, takes Architectural Technologies students on a two-week adventure to the Lake Atitlán region of Guatemala. On past trips, students from Engineering Design and Drafting Technologies and Journalism have also participated.
The group spends a week on a house-building project for a local family in an Indigenous village, while living in nearby Panajachel, a town of about 15,000. The tour also includes a visit to Antigua, Guatemala's historic capital, and a chance to learn about the city's architectural history.
"The students see how it is to live there - in an isolated location away from the usual tourist spots - and work alongside people who do this every day," says Matt Jakobfi, also an Architectural Technologies Instructor and trip organizer. "We learn about local construction methodologies, but students are also exposed to a completely different part of the world."
There's nothing like it
"The experience was life-changing," says Alisha Wuthrich (AT '18), who took part in the trip in February/March of this year. "There were definitely educational perks, but I really enjoyed being immersed in the culture, living in Panajachel.
"The environment brings you back to basics — and it makes you appreciate some of the things you might take for granted."
The group worked on the house with the family who will live there when it's finished.
"Building that connection was amazing," she says. "Being able to give back, to be part of something like that - it was humbling."
Brains, brawn and the funds to build
Students who take part in the trip bring a lot to the table, including the skills they're learning in their programs. They also fundraise to cover all costs associated with the build.
"Last year we raised about $20,000," says Jakobfi. "This allowed us to finance a complete home build and have funds left over to support other services provided by Mayan Families — elder care, education, medical services and more."
The funds allow the project to get underway immediately and, when the students leave, continue on by employing local tradespeople to complete the build.
"Each trip, the students go back and visit the houses built by previous groups," says Bussiere. "The students get to see how the effort they put in has changed the lives of a family. I think that's what energizes them most."
Building more than houses
Over the years SAIT students have earned a reputation for being some of the hardest workers on the ground, says Jakobfi.
"You can see they're invested in it - when we land, they're ready to go, ready to work. You can see they've been preparing for it for months. This is hard work, but no one quits everyone gives 110%," he says.
But that gleaming reputation isn't the best part of the trip for either Bussiere or Jakobfi.
"The greatest part is experiencing something for the first time through someone else's eyes — you get to re-live it," says Bussiere.
"I've never seen accomplishment, satisfaction, joy, the desire to go out and celebrate displayed on a human face like that before — that's the best part of the trip," says Jakobfi.
The next PANA Service Learning program departs in February 2019 — find out more about this trip and others at the Study Abroad Reception on Friday, Nov. 16, part of International Education Week at SAIT.