Every year, more than 1,000 visitors travel to the San Lucas Mission in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala. They come to learn about the history and culture of the Maya people and to work alongside them by participating in the programs of the Mission. Many leave wondering what they can do to help. Cabrini University, a Catholic institution in Pennsylvania, devised a powerful answer to this question.
In 2008, Cabrini developed a new social justice curriculum for all students. Their goal was for students to better understand the world around them and their place in it. Cabrini named their new curriculum “Engagement with the Common Good,” and it required all students to take three courses on this topic. Cabrini asked Catholic Relief Services for a recommendation. “Where would be the best place to go in Central America to witness the strength of the human spirit and its resilience in the face of oppression?” And the answer was, “The Mission in San Lucas Tolimán, Guatemala.”
Based on this recommendation, Cabrini designed a class that includes an in-depth study of Guatemala, a visit to the San Lucas Mission, and an invitation to take action after returning home.
Over the past 11 years, this course has had a profound impact on Cabrini students. Since 2009, 150 Cabrini University students have visited the Mission in San Lucas Tolimán and immersed themselves in its programs. What is particularly powerful is what happens after they return, when they make presentations to the foreign affairs aides of their Senators and Representatives.
It all begins with studying Guatemalan history and Maya culture. Then, students spend a week in San Lucas Tolimán, learning from community leaders and working alongside them. One of the most memorable parts of their time is a visit to the Women’s Center run by the Mission. Here, while making tortillas and learning about weaving, they discover the strength and resilience of Maya women.
“In a normal college course you’re learning about the history but it doesn’t apply to anything you’ll have to do in real life,” Cabrini senior Camilia Katkocin said. “But in this course, we learned about the backstory of Guatemala and how it came to be the way it is. Reading articles, researching, and looking into the problems that they’re having in the past and today, and what we’d be seeing when we got [to San Lucas]. A lot of people do mission trips or immersion trips but they don’t understand the history of what they’re going into.”
Cabrini graduate Molly Seaman agrees. “I had gone on several mission trips before, but I was never required to take a class beforehand. The semester-long course made it a much more powerful experience because I was able to learn about the culture and political background of Guatemala. This helped me to understand why things are the way they are to better serve during my time in San Lucas Tolimán. With most mission trips you have the idea that you’re going to go down and build a house and you’re going to feel good. This class is about honoring the integral human development of the whole person: mind, body and soul. It’s more about what they can teach you rather than what you can teach them.”
After getting back from San Lucas, the students dive into advocacy. Since 2009, Cabrini students have made about 450 presentations to the foreign affairs aides of their Senators and Representatives in Washington. Guided by their professors Jerry Zurek and Raquel Atena Green, each student chooses a specific topic they want to address with their congressperson: sanitation, child health, climate change, migration, etc. They work together and each prepares their thoughts on the topics, working to amplify the voices of those they listened to in San Lucas. Then, students book an appointment with their congressperson.
According to Zurek, every student group has a different experience lobbying in Washington. But ultimately, the students have had an overwhelmingly positive experience. “Students leave the offices and say: ‘Our voice matters,’ ” Zurek said. Camilia and Molly noticed that their representatives took notes, made eye contact, and seemed to really listen to their experience in San Lucas.
Taking action helped some students like Molly process their experience. “Coming back it hit me the hardest. I had all these feelings and thoughts that I needed to get out. It felt very empowering to go to the leaders of our country and tell the story. These are real people.”
Many other students found the lobbying process empowering. “I was thrilled to be able to use my voice in a way that the people in Guatemala can’t. We were speaking for the voiceless,” Camilia said. “But really, they’re not voiceless. It’s just hard for us to hear them all the way over here. I was just magnifying the voices of the people in Guatemala.”
Zurek points out that the course has a profound impact on students. For some students, San Lucas helps them clarify what they want to do with their lives. For many others, the course helps them to see themselves as citizens of the world.
“It made me realize how much power I have as a US citizen,” Camilia said. “I need to use what I’ve been given to help others. It’s something that will absolutely never leave me. The idea that we have the ability to change someone’s water source, or to make it easier for them to be safe in the home that they’re in. To make sure they’re happy and safe and comfortable in the place they live. This experience showed me that we have the power to do this. Even if it’s one voice.”
Molly notes that the experience has shaped the way she buys products and votes. She added that the experience has also empowered her to speak up when others make uninformed comments about people or places they’re unfamiliar with.
“[This semester] changed the way we see the entire world,” Camilia said.