Learning and teaching in Guatemala

By

Mikala Kass

Undergraduate global health student Mariyah Dreza spent her summer researching mental health in Guatemala and along the way had the opportunity to speak to an audience of local undergraduate students.

After receiving a competitive Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, Dreza chose to attend the Guatemala: Community Health and Medical Anthropology field school led by Arizona State University's School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

This year, Dreza and other students came up with research questions, designed surveys and conducted interviews with more than 60 women to determine their perceptions of mental health, which can help inform local health organizations’ goals.

Through her scholarship, the American Spaces office — part of a U.S. Department of State program that provides places for people to learn about American culture — heard about Dreza and invited her to give guest lectures at two cultural anthropology courses at the Universidad del Valle. Despite feeling nervous, she spoke to a large crowd of students there about her research experience and answered their questions about anthropological methods.

“This type of interaction between undergraduate students is incredibly valuable,” said Associate Professor Jonathan Maupin, the field school’s lead. “We hope to have more opportunities like this in the future.”

Dreza shared more with ASU Now about this immersive field school experience.

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

Question: What inspired you to study global health?

Answer: I really love that global health is well rounded and recognizes how extensive the discipline of health is. I was also interested in the field study with Associate Professor Maupin because it was more research focused, and ultimately research is what drives global health programs and steers proper health care and program development.

photo of Dreza kayaking on lake in Guatemala

Dreza kayaking on Lake Atitlan in Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Mariyah Dreza.

Q: What was your role in this onsite ethnographic research? What skills did you learn?

A: Maupin was researching the community of Acatenango and that community's perceptions of mental health and mental illness. Our role was to conduct in-home interviews with women, which involved reading them stories about a person with clinical symptoms of different mental illnesses.

We asked what they believed to be happening to the person in the story, and if they thought that person had a mental illness. We asked them about how probable were different possible reasons for the illness, such as: their own bad behavior, genetics, circumstances in their life, the way they were raised, God's will, things like that. We learned a lot about the methods behind research.

We also measured social distance, which was the most interesting to me. We asked questions such as how willing they would be to be neighbors with someone like the person in the story, to rent a room with them, to work with them, to have their daughter marry someone like them. So far, it looks as though alcoholism is the most readily recognized, and people tend to answer with keeping the most distance from that hypothetical person. 

Q: What was your most memorable moment from the field school?

A: Maupin is actually the vice president of the nonprofit ALDEA that focuses on empowering vulnerable Mayan communities. Our very last day of the program, we were able to come along for a board meeting, where we visited a Mayan community to see firsthand the progress going on there.

Some of the houses finally had stoves, compared to the open-fire cooking they previously had. Picture 39 parts per million carbon monoxide exposure to women and children, down to three parts per million. There were also family gardens, and goats had been distributed to families with toddlers so that they had access to goat milk and more nutrition. It was great to see global health concepts in action.

Q: What was your greatest challenge during the program?

A: I think the hardest part was learning all about Guatemala. They have a long history of violence, a 36-year-long civil war that barely ended in 1996, where more than 200,000 people died. Now, almost half of the population lives in poverty. It wasn't unsafe while we were visiting, and the culture is incredibly hardworking and beautiful. But definitely a bit of culture shock came with being aware of their history.

Q: What was it like to give a presentation at Guatemala City’s Universidad del Valle?

A: I got a call that I would be giving a presentation to two anthropology classes at Universidad del Valle to approximately 60 college students. It was a Tuesday afternoon and this presentation would be on that Thursday morning. Needless to say, I was pretty terrified. But I was able to do most of the presentation in English, which was a relief. 

I didn't feel very comfortable about giving the presentation, and in all honesty I wasn't sure if I could do it. But it seemed like one of those moments in life that's sort of a turning point, and that you're supposed to push through. In the end, it actually went pretty smoothly, given the short notice!

Q: What did you and Maupin discuss?

A: I talked about the methods of the study and my role in the ethnographic research. Basically, I went through why Maupin was interested on their perceptions of mental health, what previous research our study was based off of, the questions we asked and our preliminary observations. The main question is: Is mental health a cultural construct, and then to what extent are mental illnesses universal? Then Maupin finished up with answering questions and discussing his past research in Guatemala.

Q: How did this experience impact you long-term?

A: I'm planning to be an optometrist, and my main goal is to ultimately work in developing countries or low-resource settings and deliver eye care where there would otherwise be less access. I could see myself in the future utilizing both my global health degree and this field study experience towards researching barriers to eye care.

This is just one of the many experiences offered through the ASU Study Abroad Office, which has 250-plus programs in more than 65 different countries.

Top photo: Dreza giving a presentation to an anthropology class at Guatemala's Universidad del Valle. Photo courtesy of Mariyah Dreza.