Lauren Beheshti : Guatemala

Reflection # 1:

If you are lucky enough to be assigned Guatemala for your IDIP program, you will work at an organization called FUNDAP, which in English, stands for the Foundation for Integral Development of Socioeconomic Programs. Yes, it’s definitely a mouthful of a title, but they’re keen on their intense-sounding names here. FUNDAP is a very well-known, multi-faceted Guatemalan NGO that has run the NGO scene here for 30 years. There are six departments to choose from when you’re preparing to intern for FUNDAP: the Microfinance program, Education for Life program, various Social Services programs, the Agricultural Development program, the Environmental Protection program, and finally the Traditional Arts (Artesanía) Development program. There are several subprograms in each of these departments, all of which have long and intense-sounding names. More information about subprogram specifics can be found on the FUNDAP website, at The subprogram I’ve been working for is the Girl’s Scholarship Program, or the GSP. The GSP’s main objective is to keep rural Guatemalan girls in school.

There are several reasons why the dropout rate is so high in Guatemala, starting at the elementary school level. Students, mostly girls, first start dropping out of school after they complete the third grade. Their parents are actually the ones that pull them out, thinking that knowing how to read and write is being sufficiently educated. The second largest reason that students drop out here in Guatemala is, of course, the lack of money to pay for school. That’s the other tricky thing - the “public” schools here aren’t in fact “public” - that is, they’re not free. At the elementary level, although there is no tuition payment, students must pay for a mandatory school uniform (that the school doesn’t provide), textbooks (that the school doesn’t provide), and school supplies. At the middle and high school levels, there is an entry fee and monthly payment, plus the uniform, textbook, and school supply costs that the elementary schoolers have. No one reuses their books or hands them down to the next grade, and each year a new uniform must be bought. There are many more reasons why education is falling behind drastically in Guatemala in comparison to the rest of the Americas, and especially the world. The GSP provides elementary and middle school scholarships that last 3 years for girls who otherwise would not be able to afford their studies.

I am lucky enough to have a nice, clean, understandable scope of work during the three months that I’ll be here. I am to make three presentations, each one in Spanish and English. The first presentation is to be presented to potential individual or family donors in the U.S., about the GSP program logistics, success stories, and remaining areas of need. The second presentation is to be given to corporate business or private companies, also about program logistics and the like. Finally, the third presentation will be about the same topic, but will be presented to NGOs and nonprofit partners in the U.S. The point is to build the U.S. donor base for FUNDAP. Another task I have will be to give a workshop my last week here about philanthropy and volunteerism in the U.S. The FUNDAP employees are curious about why us gringos are so generous, and I’m more than excited to explore this phenomenon as well.

I think a few of my personal thoughts are sprinkled throughout this reflection, but overall I’m having a very positive, very rich experience here in Guatemala, full of valuable lessons in and outside of professional life. I’m frustrated with the bureaucracy of the school system, how the schools call themselves “public” when indeed, they are very much for-profit institutions. Why do teachers and principals, the very people that should care the most about educating the population, insist on requiring an overpriced uniform that just weeds out the poor from the less-poor? Why don’t people think to reuse, donate, or at least sell their used textbooks to the incoming batch of students? Does teaching students that (and this is a direct quote from a FUNDAP Regional Director) “being polite and obeying your teachers matters more than getting a good grade” really bring out their full potential? There is unrelenting promise here in Guatemala. The knowledge of the extremely fertile land, the ability to master two-three languages, the utter strength and perseverance that each person here is endowed with - it could all, under the right conditions, and in the right hands, amount to something very, very fruitful someday.

Reflection # 2:

Not a whole lot has changed since I arrived in Guatemala nearly two months ago. The country’s still gorgeous, the system’s still messed up, the people are still friendly, the machismo is still here, and I still love what I’m learning. It’s more, actually, like initial observations have hardened into feelings and ‘takeaways’ - little lessons I’ve learned or bits of information I’ve come across that I’ll take away with me when I go. So we can leave on a good note, shall we start with the ugly?

I would be lying if I said it was all rainbows and butterflies here in Guatemala, working with FUNDAP, and living with my host mom. There have been hard times, that’s for sure, and I can’t help but notice that the brunt of the struggle fell exactly where the ‘culture shock experts’ over at Education Abroad said it would - right in the middle, after my initial high wore off. I don’t know why, probably because I’m a hipster at heart, but I really don’t like being a part of these ‘gringos in exotic lands’ statistics, where my emotional forecast is predicted by some person I don’t know in some random office somewhere, before I’ve even gone off on my trip and had the experiences that lie ahead. How do they know what I’m going to be feeling and when!? But, whatever, long story short: they were right. The better part of February was spent observing the little ironies that dot the Guatemalan social landscape - little holes here and there where what is said and what is done are two clearly different things (and yes, as an American, I would be able to identify inconsistencies between policy and everyday action, right? Our little ‘ironies’ are a dime a dozen in the US, there’s no denying that). Again, they’re little ironies, nothing that probably has any direct, glaring, immediate consequence - just little things that make me roll my eyes.

For example, why are hundreds of gallons of water being wasted, in a drought-ridden community, to clean off a dusty street that is already littered with trash? Or better yet, why are the streets littered with trash, when nearly every person here supposedly takes pride in the natural beauty of their country? Or another one, on the ever-important image of security in Guatemala - why do security officers armed with 3-foot assault rifles guard malls, banks, and Mexican restaurants when 98% of crime in the country goes unpunished? Or maybe one for my own boss - why do you preach gender equality and women’s empowerment if you favor your son more than your daughters, and leave every last bit of child-rearing and household responsibility to your wife? Then there’s the one that I seem to be reminded of every night at dinner with my devoutly religious host mom - do you really love thy neighbor - all thy neighbors? Thy homosexual neighbor, thy addicted neighbor, or - my personal favorite - thy “hippie” neighbor? Again, this is not any different than US culture - where we all try to live ‘green’, then drive home in our own cars; or where we say that education is one of the most important values of our nation - yet it costs more than most people make in a year to get a college degree. I guess it’s just that it’s my job, as an intern here, is to observe things like this, learn about this country (the good and the bad), and try my hardest to be of service to an organization that helps people who are victims of these little ironies, and supports people who are working towards a solution - whether it’s in protecting the environment, promoting gender equality, helping victims of violent crimes, or establishing a stronger rule of law in Guatemala.

Little ironies aside, let’s get to that good note: my scope of work. Since my last reflection, I’ve written, translated, and turned in two (soon to be three) presentations to potential individual and corporate donors in the US, on FUNDAP’s Girls Scholarship Program and its objectives, beneficiaries, and success stories. In between projects, I wrote a 35-question Learning Style Quiz (remember, from middle school: ‘kinesthetic learner’, ‘linguistic learner’, auditory learner’) to be taken by students at FUNDAP partner schools in helping them build better study habits, and helping their teachers write better lesson plans. And of course, the magnum opus of my FUNDAP internship: a 2.5 hour workshop/presentation on the history and current trends of International Development, specifically Community Driven Development. Followed by, randomly, another 2.5 hour long workshop on photography tips, entitled Take Better Pictures! (per my boss’ request - apparently he likes my photos!).

Between the presentation to potential corporate donors (which has to be posed from a certain angle - a lot more results-focused, statistic- and number-based, and oriented around the question ‘what’s in it for us?’), and the International Development workshop (where we go through and analyze different development models in history, and evaluate the pros and cons of our current model) - I’ve come to realize: damn it if this isn’t an absolutely, beautifully, spot-on perfect synthesis to the last 3.5 years of my education. I mean seriously, I’m the last one to bring God into the equation, but it really feels like there was some kind of divine intervention at play here! It’s eerily perfect, how relevant this all is to my two majors (Spanish and International Studies),  and how many times in the day I’ve had to think back and remember, ‘ok, what did we learn about neoliberalism and Latin America in Andolina’s class again?’ Or, ‘where’s that one reading that Peter had us read that talks about US volunteerism and philanthropy?’ (actually - much of what I’ve worked on here was learned, or at least touched on, in Peter Blomquist’s Global Awareness Program. Most definitely consider applying to be in the GAP series if you’re interested in IDIP - a wonderful IDIP precursor and opportunity to network in the Seattle International Development community).

I guess one thing, one personal thing, has changed since I’ve been here in Guatemala - I’ve developed a new habit. Every night before I go to bed, I thank the universe/God/mother nature/Allah/Buddha/pure luck/whatever the hell it is, for everything I have. And every night, my education and the privilege of making that education whole with an opportunity like this, is one of the first things that comes to mind. I encourage anyone out there interested in development work to apply for the IDIP program. For me, it’s been a wonderful, dynamic way to affirm my passion for this path, and to do what brought us all here in the first place: help other people.