By Jennifer Von Ohlen
DASSEL, COKATO, MN This summer, 11 Dassel-Cokato High School (DCHS) students left learning Spanish in the classroom behind for a two-week cultural immersion in the Spanish-speaking country of Guatemala.
After more than a year of planning, and several meetings preparing the students for what they were going to see and experience, DCHS Spanish teachers Katie Scepaniak and Brooke Dell traveled with the students to Guatemala Aug. 12, with two other adult chaperones.
The students were housed by host families, which gave them a firsthand look at the culture’s family life and daily living.
Each student was paired with a Guatemalan teacher, who joined their host families for breakfast the first morning of their stay as a way of getting to know them. This forced the students to instantly start speaking Spanish, which would become the group’s primary language for the rest of the trip.
However, the language did not come without its lessons. Each Guatemalan teacher provided one-to-one lessons Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. to improve the students’ Spanish and help them explore the culture.
Each teacher had their own instruction techniques, from telling stories, to visiting shops, to playing games.
“They would try to get us to engage in Spanish, instead of just listening, comprehending, and guessing,” stated Jason Nordberg, a junior.
Kailee Johnson, a junior, said that since she’s returned to the states, she has been able to help a Japanese foreign exchange student attending DC with her history homework using the same techniques her Guatemalan instructor used to teach her.
Wednesdays were “interactive meeting” days, when the students had hands-on lessons about specific aspects of the culture.
Their first lesson focused on a typical Mayan ceremony, which was quite symbolic as candles, sugar, tobacco, and other items were burned and the cardinal directions had different meanings.
“It was just an interesting way to see how they use their ceremonies to give thanks for things,” stated Nordberg.
Kaedee Kay Bergquist said they also spent a day learning about some of the culture’s natural medicines, using herbs, dandelions, and “other plants I, myself, wouldn’t naturally think you should consume, but they found reasons for it.”
During the afternoons, the students and chaperones would travel by bus to experience more of the country. They hiked two volcanic mountains, played soccer, learned the process of making traditional dress clothes, went shopping, made their own chocolate bars from cocoa beans, visited cemeteries, swam in two hot springs, went cliff jumping, as well as several other activities.
The group spent two days volunteering for some of the country’s children and elderly, which allowed them to get to know more about the people who lived there.
Brandon Johnson, a senior, said he especially bonded with the kids, and loved being around them.
“We did a lot of activities while we were there with the children played a lot of games, taught them different dances, and just exchanged cultures all together,” he stated.
While spending time with the elderly, the students did some activities they did not particularly enjoy (at first), such as “singing songs [in Spanish] that we don’t know and dancing to them . . . when we don’t know them. So we’re learning it in front of these elderly people and they’re just laughing at us, because they think it’s hilarious,” explained Megan Hesse, a senior, with a smile on her own face.
Besides learning the dances, the students also attempted to teach the elders card games which was not easy for the elders to understand, either. However, they did play bingo and ate plenty of cookies.
As the students continued to meet the locals throughout their trip, Nordberg said a lasting memory for him was the graciousness of the people.
“Even though they don’t have much, they always try to put you first and just be really considerate of you,” he said.
Mackenzie Nguyen, a junior, experienced this caring nature firsthand during their assent of the volcanic mountain San Pedro.
She had eaten a snack that contained an assortment of nuts, even though she is allergic to peanuts, and experienced an allergic reaction. She started “freaking out” and was crying and eventually passed out.
Throughout the whole episode, however, Nguyen said many “random strangers” came by and helped her get through it.
“They were very helpful, there was a lot of people on top of the mountain that helped us take care of Kenzie. We were very grateful for them,” added Dell.
“They were used to dealing with altitude sickness, [and] we told them she had an allergy and stuff, and we got some Benadryl and Tylenol into her and they helped massage her and check her blood-oxygen levels, and they all had these tools, and they had this special tea for her and everything. So it was just a really great testament to the Guatemalan people and how helpful they were.”
As the students wrapped up their Guatemalan adventure, a graduation ceremony took place to congratulate them for the time spent with their teachers.
Each of the students received a certificate from their one-to-one instructors, as well as one from their DC teachers.
A celebratory party followed the ceremony, with food, dancing, and live music.
“It was a lot of fun,” stated Elisabeth Jerome, a senior.
“I’d be grateful to do it again,” added Hesse.