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Students begin new year in a foreign country volunteering

By Mary Jean Hall
On January 30, 2013

 Instead of bringing in the new year working out at the gym or organizing their homes, a group of students and faculty members from UTM volunteered their time and effort in Guatemala for a service-learning travel study.

Dr. Sandy Mehlhorn, Assistant Professor of Agriculture Engineering at UTM, organized the Guatemala travel study in cooperation with the UTM Center for International Education.

"I thought it would be great for service-learning to go down there, experience their culture and help them," Mehlhorn said. "I think the travel study experiences are great for students. It helps them get out of their comfort zone, get out in the world and see how other people live."

The group consisted of two UTM professors, seven UTM students and two Martin Middle School students. Dr. Joey Mehlhorn, Agricultural Economics Professor and Interim Gil Parker Chair of Excellence at UTM, attended as well.

The Mehlhorns' children, Elizabeth, 11, and Robert, 14, also went on the trip. Both are students at Martin Middle School.

"I enjoyed being able to take my family and experience that together," Sandy Mehlhorn said. "For my young children, it's a good experience to see how others live and a lot of comforts they take for granted in other parts of the world. It was a good learning experience for them."

The team participated in a milestone for the 12x12 Love Project, which is the program that they went through. During their time in Guatemala, they helped the project start building the 100th house.

Part of the travel-study expenses included a small amount of money from each person to be donated for various projects the team could work on. The major project that they funded included a kitchen with concrete floors for only $500.

They funded and built stoves for two families in the Magdalena Milpas Altas and Buena Vista area for just $150 each, and they also funded and painted two recently built houses for just $200 each.

According to the World Fact Book, there is a high mortality rate for Guatemalan children. Many problems arise from having fires burning for cooking in or right beside the home. Young children breathing in the smoke from the fire can often get respiratory illnesses that sometimes lead to death.

The stoves that were installed vent the smoke outside of the home or kitchen and essentially above where the children and their families are. The new stoves should help prevent some of the children from becoming ill.

The group hopes to raise enough money for at least 20 stoves by next January.

Sandy Mehlhorn would love to see the travel-study become a yearly trip. She thinks that the trip shouldn't be limited to any certain major, just generally toward service learning.

"I don't think you can go to a country like that, and it not change your perspective a little bit," Sandy Mehlhorn said.

The students who participated in the travel-study felt the same way about the experience, including Chelsie Darnell. Darnell is a junior Plant and Soil Science major at UTM.

"It was a great experience and I'd recommend it to just about anyone," Darnell said. "It was work but it was worth it because you're supplying those people with something that they normally wouldn't have. My favorite part of the trip was the one family with the key ceremony. The man started crying and it made me thankful. The most touching part was seeing all of the families' reactions and knowing we were making a difference."

For the class credit, she worked on a project with soil erosion. An area farmer in Buena Vista asked her for advice with erosion control during her time there, so she gave him a few recommendations. She hopes to do more research and send recommendations back down to Guatemala as well.

Darnell hopes to eventually come back to the Martin/ Union City area to raise a family and work with soil erosion, perhaps even with the university.

"It gives you aspirations to help your community and not be so closed-minded," Darnell said. "It's an opportunity [that] makes you think about others more so than you normally would. It was an eye-opening experience."

"I recommend that you should find some way to participate in a travel study. I think it'll make the U.S. a better place," she continued.

Darnell would like to go back to Guatemala, especially next January with the university, if the opportunity and monetary function is there.

Lorrie Jackson, the Travel Study Coordinator at UTM, feels confident that this program will continue.

"This program will continue, and I'd like to see it expand across other colleges on campus," Jackson said. "This is one of the most enriching experiences, being able to exercise the engineering component by installing stoves since upper respiratory illness is a main concern. The agriculture component was helping them grow crops for the local school children."

According to Jackson, this was the first Agricultural Engineering-based service-learning trip, but it's not the only service-learning trip in progress. The department is currently working on an Ecuador trip with an Education and Nursing base.

As an outreach to the community, some of the travel study trips are opened up to members of the community. A few of the opportunities for community members to participate include a trip to Washington, D.C. in May with Malcolm Koch for Political Science, Ireland in May with Nathan Howard and Jeff Longacre for English and New Zealand in June with Mark Simmons for Music.

Generally, most travel-study programs offer class credit for students who participate. Still not sure what a travel-study is?

According to Jackson, travel-study is an outreach program that has an experiential learning base, which is learning through experience, and it's also outreach through the community.


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