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Student Profile

Two Villages in the Guatemalan Highlands

by Jamie L. Huish

The sun is rising over a small Guatemalan village as a young college student rolls out of her sleeping bag and helps her host mother prepare a simple breakfast over the fire. There is no electricity, and the younger children haul water from a nearby well. As the day goes on, the student volunteers at a local health clinic, taking copious notes in her research notebook. The sun climbs higher and the men are returning from their corn fields for lunch in adobe huts. The student joins her peers and their professors for a bite to eat, and a discussion over the day’s findings. Small Guatemalan children chatter in K’iche’, their native language, at her feet.

For a small group of BYU undergraduates, this is summer break. Field study programs are usually reserved for students in the upper stages of graduate work, and serious research is widely considered practical only for those at the graduate or doctoral level—an idea that is being challenged by John P. Hawkins, an anthropology professor at BYU.

Humble Beginnings

An idea formulated in a coffee shop in Mexico City was the creative spark that became the first BYU Guatemalan field study program. Hawkins was chatting with colleague Walter Adams, then at Brown University, between sessions of the 1993 International Congress of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences. They questioned the presumed incompetency of undergraduate students in the research field and decided such an experience would serve as wonderful preparation for graduate school. In Hawkins’ words, “On the whole, the stereotype is that undergraduates have inadequate training in the discipline and less commitment to research.”1

The two professors combined their ideas to create a field study that would unite their research interests. They identified two Guatemalan villages as sites that would be conducive to research by groups of undergraduate students: Nahuala and Santa Catarina Ixtahuacan.

Launched in the summer of 1995, Hawkins annually accompanies ten to twelve students during the spring/summer terms. Each student is required to take a rigorous preparatory class the semester prior to departure, taught by Dave Shuler, International Study Programs (ISP) coordinator. Shuler provides instruction in culture, literature, and research methods. The program is also directed by a student field facilitator, a senior anthropology major who has participated in the program at least once.

The recruitment process for the field study can be intense. Students are required to be at least conversational in Spanish, and an optional class is offered in the indigenous K’iche’ language. “We [show] them pictures of dingy outhouses, boardhard beds, and life in a sleeping bag. We [talk] about reactions to dogs, flea bites, rain and mud, and getting sick,” said Hawkins.Tough, dedicated, and cooperative students are sought for, and the groups become very close on the May to August trip. “The students are very mature. They conduct themselves as well as any graduate students,” said Shuler.

Rigorous demands are placed on the selected students. They comply with a set of rules that is clearly outlined: avoiding alcohol, illicit drugs, smoking, and any behavior seen as flirtatious or promiscuous. As required of all BYU overseas programs, students, many of whom are former missionaries, also agree to refrain from proselyting about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. “We [reiterate] frequently that we [are in] Guatemala to learn about other people’s cultures, not to preach, teach, or persuade them about any aspect of ours.”Students have responded favorably to these conditions, with few serious problems over the ten summers the program has been functioning.

“Programs like John’s demonstrate that students are capable of serious research,” said Shuler. “The better half of undergraduate research is equal to graduate research.”

Securing a Future

The program changed in 2002, when Hawkins received funding through the National Science Foundation (NSF). Working with his colleague, Adams, Hawkins applied for the grant under the Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which provides funding for transportation, room and board, and a weekly stipend for ten students. The grant was awarded for two years, and then renewed for three years as the program continued to be successful.

Implementing the grant brought about several changes. The field work became more research oriented, with a stronger emphasis on publication. Each student submits a research proposal with very specific topics prior to going. Hawkins imposes a central theme, such as health or religious practices, as a focus each year. After the field study is completed, students compile their papers to be combined into a volume on that topic. “The grant gave us the power of enticement to say ‘this is how it’s going to be,’” said Hawkins.

Students often live with families that correspond with the theme. During the summer with religion as the focus, students lived with local religious leaders. In 2005, students will be researching under the theme of kinship, family, marriage, and domestic relationships.

The grant also allowed BYU to combine with affiliate universities for a limited number of students. The University of Illinois at Chicago, Southwest Texas University, and University of Texas Panamerican each contribute one or two students for the group. Hawkins and Adams travel to each university to assist in the selection and preparation process.

Village Life

Students become an integral part of the two village communities. Previously the program ran for seven weeks, but at the request of students and faculty, it was extended to its current length of twelve weeks. “The longer the better,” said Shuler. “This allows students to get in deeper with the community and strengthen relationships.”

Indeed, relationships with the villagers proved to be crucial as Hawkins returned year after year. Interpreters, housing, and general living conditions are established for the following year, creating a strong foundation for the students to build on. “The genius of field studies is that it’s the same faculty doing continuous research in the same location,” said Shuler. “It’s amazing.”

The host families are attracted to the idea of “adopting” students for the summer because they receive pay for room and board well above the going rate. Students are encouraged to become like another child in the family and help with chores and family duties as necessary.

Shuler recounted an experience he had one summer while visiting a village school with the group facilitator. He recalled a child yelling the K’iche’ name of the student and suddenly hundreds of people running toward them. The villagers enthusiastically greeted Shuler and the student, who was fluent in K’iche’ and lived with a local family. When the student had to return to the United States, Shuler recalls the tears that were shed as though it was the departure of one of the family’s own sons. “I could tell no difference between him and other members of the family,” Shuler said.

Field research is conducted as a part of students’ daily lives. They are encouraged to volunteer several hours a week, working with villagers in various occupations that provide a natural outlet to form relationships.

One student, Amy Alexander, was researching sorrow and depression in Guatemalan women. She spent hours with an elderly woman cooking and doing daily chores. The pair hauled water, washed clothing on rocks, and collected sticks for the woman’s fire. Through their chores, the student talked with the woman and learned her life story. “Eventually this was what gave her access to understanding the woman,” said Shuler.

Students accompany many types of people on their daily routines. They visit schools, volunteer at clinics, and work as translators. Many work with nongovernment organizations (NGOs) to offer volunteer services. The community reaction in both villages has been very positive. “We’re part of the community,” Shuler said.

Students also continue their formal education with their professors. One day a week is devoted to class studies, where students review the work they have done over the past week. Attended by all students and professors, the classes serve as a time for continuing guidance and encouragement as the projects come together. Students debrief each other on their data and research, and cite what needs to be done in the future to enhance their projects. The day also includes presentations and discussions of the country and culture and how findings can be applied to particular projects.

Hurricane Mitch

In the summer of 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America, causing detrimental damage to Guatemalan villages and towns. Landslides buried the hillsides in mud, making the earth so saturated with water that the adobe huts most villagers lived in melted. Floods changed the face of the land, making the village a shadow of its former self.

During this time, there were several BYU students working in the village of Ixtahuacan. These students rescued people, helped with cleanup efforts, and observed the culture in the face of a natural disaster. Their experiences eventually became the subject of many of their research projects.

Seeing the widespread destruction, the Guatemalan government proposed relocating Ixtahuacan to a new area in the mountains. Some residents pushed for the new location, a move from 6,800 to 9,800 feet elevation. The new location would be close to an international highway, with more outside access but a much colder climate.

Naturally, the move sparked debate all throughout the community. Old and young disputed the merits of uprooting to an entirely new place, leaving behind ages of ancestral ground. Deeply religious, some elderly K’iche’ opposed the move, arguing it would displace their patron saints. Many younger members of the community wanted to leave Ixtahuacan, while the older members preferred rebuilding their former home.

Even the students were divided over the move. “It made for a dynamic academic discussion for the students, but it was very real,” said Shuler. The debate continued throughout the summer and as the students returned to the United States.

Ultimately, four-fifths of the community moved to the new location, named New Ixtahuacan, but referred to as “Alaska” due to the temperature change. Those who uprooted were “the young, the protestant, and the more educated,” according to Hawkins.

To assist in the move, the government offered extensive aid. “They built an entire city,” said Hawkins. New Ixtahuacan has cinderblock homes, electricity, and running water in every home Shuler said. The people settled into their new homes, even creating new myths about why they founded the town.

In spite of their acceptance of the move, the relocation has created problems. The higher altitude brings many upper respiratory diseases to a people unaccustomed to damp and fog. At first there was no way to get wood or grow corn. “They moved away from their land; this is the basis of their identity,” said Hawkins. Transportation to and from their old corn fields costs a third of a day’s wages. Many are becoming very dependent on aid from NGOs. This is difficult as well because it goes against the indigenous culture. “It contradicts the Indian identity of self-support,” said Hawkins.

The K’iche’ struggle between two worlds. Many are caught between adapting to the modern world and remaining entrenched in their traditional Mayan world. “They lead a very conflicted life,” said Hawkins. The relocation seems to have triggered a surge in alcohol abuse and public drunkenness, spawned the first case of suicide, and led to the first occurrence of migration to the United States.

Despite these hardships and changes, many in the village are surviving. Few people return to Old Ixtahuacan because of a cultural emphasis on honor. “To return is an admission of defeat,” said Hawkins. The K’iche’ relocation provided many new angles for research and study for BYU students.

Publish or Perish

In the early years, the field study program had little concern for publication, but Hawkins realized his students were collecting valuable material. His goal became to “improve the program to make publication an easier and natural result.” With the NSF funding, this became ever more important and is now one of the program’s main goals.

Ideas for publication always begin long before students ever set foot in Guatemala. Starting with the preparation course, each student choose a topic conducive to field research within the scope of the overall theme. Students must enroll in a field method’s course and a Mesoamerican course emphasizing Guatemalan study. Each class provides the needed preparation for developing a solid research proposal. That proposal is then investigated in-depth during the summer, and each student receives nine credit hours for their course work. Rough drafts of papers are encouraged to be written during the last two weeks of the field study to allow for any unanswered gaps to be filled.

Upon exiting the field, students turn their efforts to the post-field experience by enrolling in an advanced writing class and a post-field seminar that synthesizes their experience and research with necessary skills to publish their findings. After months of writing and revision, the students compile papers ready for presentation.

Conference presentations are almost unheard of for undergraduate students. Hawkins says this is an integral part of academia and strongly encourages formal presentation. Winter semester following their return marks the first presentation, which is accomplished at ISP’s Field Study Inquiry Conference held at the Kennedy Center. From these comfortable proceedings close to home, students then work up to a regional conference such as the Utah Academy of Sciences, Arts, and Letters. National levels follow at the American Anthropological Association and the Latin American Studies Association. Hawkins believes strongly in the effects of proceeding to each level. “Students from our field study are the only undergraduates at these meetings,” he said. “And they are the only ones getting published like this.”

Currently, there are three volumes underway. The first: Roads to Change in Maya Guatemala: On Field Schools, Nurturing Undergraduate Ethnography, and Understanding the K’iche’ will be published by the University of Oklahoma Press (2005). Volume two centers on health systems and is currently under review; volume three covers the Ixtahuacan relocation studies and is in development.

Hawkins said there are many benefits to an expectation of publication. Professional exposure and increased academic focus serve the students as well as the professors, and the program as a whole. Students gain confidence as their papers and their presentation skills become more polished. Students also become more aware of the importance of the ground they are covering. “Many of the papers display a gradually increasing awareness of a student’s cultural ethnocentrism. We have tried not to edit out such developing realization of their own naiveté, because it is of value to others to see fellow students struggle against the bands and blinders of our own cultural background.”

For more information on the opportunities offered by International Study Programs, see the web site at http://kennedy.

1. Hawkins, John P. and Walter Randolph Adams. Roads to Change in Maya Guatemala: On Field School, Nurturing Undergraduate Ethnography, and Understanding the K’iche’, p. 29.
2. Ibid., p. 37.
3. Ibid., p. 40.
4. Ibid., p. 77.