EMU Honors College initiates virtual student travel during the pandemic

People in colorful clothing are gathered at an outdoor market in Guatemala.
Community members of the village of Nebaj, Guatemala interacted virtually with students in EMU's Honors College Cultural Anthropology course to analyze the town's market.

YPSILANTI - Although COVID-19 interrupted most students’ plans to study abroad, the EMU Honors College still found a way for students to forge international connections during the pandemic.

For many young adults, attending college presents their first opportunity to experience foreign cultures. When COVID-19 forced people across the globe into quarantine, it seemed students would miss out on this enriching experience.

Dr. Ann Eisenberg, dean of the Honors College, recognized the need to find a way to foster these important encounters and help students meet their Honors global competency requirement. So she enlisted the expert assistance of anthropology professor Dr. Maria Luz Garcia to design a virtual program to help students “travel” safely.

Dr. Garcia had previously used Skype in her Introduction to Cultural Anthropology course to connect students to citizens in Latin America. She found the digital-face-to-face interaction encouraged cultural understanding and exposure to new languages.

“The real people that [students] talked to are engaging, genuine, and eager to talk to students,” said Dr. Garcia. “It’s really rewarding for students to see that it is a two-sided process. The students are interested in learning about these people from another culture, who are just as interested in learning about the students.” 

Dr. Garcia’s strong personal and professional connections to the village of Nebaj, Guatemala, provided a foundation for the development of a week-long, digital workshop, in which students interacted with Maya community members to analyze the town's market. The program was designed to enable participants to engage in meaningful exchanges with Guatemalan residents to understand cultural differences relating to economic structures, relationships with food, uses of space, interaction patterns, and interpersonal communication.

“I was excited at Dr. Garcia’s suggestion for an innovative response to the challenges the pandemic posed,” said Dr. Eisenberg, who oversees operations of the Honors College. “If it worked, I realized we would have an engaging way not only to meet the challenge of the pandemic, but to involve students who have not traditionally had the opportunity to study abroad.

To assist with the development of the program, The Honors College received a $1,500 Portz Grant from the National Collegiate Honors Council (NCHC). Dr. García was excited to lead the workshop, especially during such a socially isolating time. 

“I am a big believer in going in person, but obviously that isn’t possible right now,” said Dr. Garcia. “It’s also not possible for students who have family responsibilities, full-time jobs, or whose finances won’t let them take two weeks off to go to Guatemala.”

Dr. García facilitated interviews with a number of Guatemalan citizens, including Romeo Guzaro Luis, Director of the Educational Institute at Colectivo de Investigación Ixil, and Miguel Guzaro Raymundo, former leader of the Comunidades de Población en Resistencia. 

The animated exchanges were what students valued most about the program. 

“I have realized that humanity is much the same: we are all people living in the same world,” said EMU senior Samantha Witteveen. “Our differences, like language and how we access resources, are still part of how the world turns. It’s kind of beautiful that everyone has the same needs but they are filled in different ways.”

Guzaro Luis contributed to making the workshop a multidirectional process by collecting photos and videos of local markets, doing his best to give students an immersive experience from afar. 

During his interview, Guzaro Raymundo discussed the 1960-1996 genocidal war in Guatemala. He explained how Maya people and Maya cultures were affected, and he lamented that there wasn’t more time to explore more regarding the war’s influence on Guatemala. 

A group of EMU students, led by Witteveen, were so moved by these conversations and touching stories about refugees, that they scheduled a follow-up interview with Guzaro Raymundo outside the parameters of the workshop. 

“People are vigilant to survive wherever and however they can,” Witteveen said. “Don Miguel told us that the people of Guatemala were struggling for 18 years, with no food and no new clothes, not even a way to go into the nearest town without being caught by either the army or the guerillas. So they stayed in the mountains for 18 years… Their resources ran out, several people died, and yet their sense of humanity was never lost.”

The Honors College intends to continue creating virtual workshops that allow students to discover cultural diversity whenever circumstances prevent international travel.

“This pilot program represents a first step toward offering students similar opportunities to engage virtually with global academic partners across the globe – especially in locations students rarely visit, even when they do go abroad,” said Dr. Eisenberg.

About Eastern Michigan University
Founded in 1849, Eastern is the second oldest public university in Michigan. It currently serves more than 16,000 students pursuing undergraduate, graduate, specialist, doctoral and certificate degrees in the arts, sciences and professions. In all, more than 300 majors, minors and concentrations are delivered through the University's Colleges of Arts and Sciences; Business; Education; Engineering and Technology; Health and Human Services; and, its graduate school. EMU is regularly recognized by national publications for its excellence, diversity, and commitment to applied education. For more information about Eastern Michigan University, visit the University's website.

November 10, 2021

Written by:
Kaley Plaxton

Darcy Gifford