Teaching and Learning in Guatemala: Women Helping Women

By Mary Alice Bruce, University of Wyoming

Maria del Pilar & Mary Alice with helpers in Guatemala

Driving on muddy roads amidst sugar cane fields, we made our way to the firecracker factory and into the lunch hall where about 35 women and their children warmly greeted us. The purpose of our afternoon together was to offer information, answer questions, and give resource materials regarding nutrition, pregnancy, nursing and general health. Service activities such as this are commonplace for these Universidas del Valle de Guatemala faculty members with whom I was honored to be a visiting professor.


Leadership & Advocacy

Guatemala is a country with gorgeous landscapes, several active volcanoes, and 22 Indigenous groups of peoples. The firecracker factory far out in the rural area of Guatemala provided opportunities and financial stability to one group of women, many of whose husbands were not employed. Accompanied to work by their babies and small children who played around the area during the day, the women were eager for knowledge and emotional support related to wellness, birth control, and family care. The university faculty members and I contributed food, joined them for lunch, and washed pots and dishes (Please see accompanying photo of Maria del Pilar, Department Head, our helpers, and me). Women helping women was a fundamental principle demonstrated throughout the faculty’s service activities and everyday lives.



Engaging my school counseling class of 23 female students every week day was easily accomplished with eager learners. I learned about the school counseling profession in Guatemala; they learned about school counseling in the United States, and we all exchanged numerous strategies for how to best support K-12 students to be their best. I offered a theoretical foundation with examples and ideas for successful practices, while they worked to put everything into the context of “what might work for Guatemala.” Throughout our lectures, lively discussions, and role plays, I was careful to honor Guatemalan culture and emphasize that our efforts together were collaborative and respectful.

However, I did teach in English, and while a prerequisite for this student cohort was an ability to be taught in English, we experienced quite a few times of puzzlement as to understanding and meanings. Such times of confusion seemed to build our relationships and appreciations. I had taken several courses in Spanish before leaving for Guatemala, but the preparation was not enough for me to converse competently with the students and faculty members, if they were not conversing in English. However, they seemed to realize that my sparse, halting speech and intentions were positive, so were patient with me.



Clinical supervision with the master’s degree students brought forward the most difficult challenges to my personal/professional values. Most female children live with their parents until they marry. Male children who marry usually continue to live with or in quite close vicinity of their parents. The family is the priority and the father, as head of the household, often makes crucial decisions regarding family members’ lives. In one situation I was supervising, the father paid for his adult daughter’s counseling sessions, then demanded to know specific details as to his daughter’s progress, and told the student-counselor the necessary action plan to be completed by his daughter. The university faculty members were quite reflective when I consulted and expressed my concerns. We discussed boundary controversies, values and beliefs, and feminist issues all within the context of advocacy for women helping women.


Research and Service

I had also been asked to prepare materials and conduct professional development workshops, one with teachers in Guatemala City at the American School, near the university. Since I had prepared an opening greeting slide, using the formal Spanish I had recently learned, the teachers seemed to sense my attempts to connect. While several university faculty members accompanied me and estimated 10-12 teachers in attendance, we were soon busy gathering chairs and making room for the more than 60 attendees. Certainly we enjoyed an afternoon full of much humor and learning about our differing cultural perspectives as we discussed and engaged in experiential activities encompassing verbal and nonverbal communication, ethical decision making, and prevention/intervention helping strategies with students. Just as we at the University of Wyoming nurture our connections within schools and communities, likewise research and service are part of faculty members’ responsibilities in Guatemala.


Wellness and Self-Care

While a career as a university faculty member is an honored and respected profession in Guatemala, financial rewards are not plentiful. Indeed, most of the female faculty had their full-time position plus taught as adjunct instructors at one or two other universities. I remember riding in one of the professor’s cars wherein the door was jammed, necessitating entry across the seats, and a plastic sheet served for a missing window.

However, rewards did come in the form of their meaningful relationships together. Thus, we planned a time of wellness and self-care within a focus on spirituality. We all travelled to the home of a faculty member’s parents near the coast where I developed and led a weekend retreat for them to explore their spirituality and soul work. My journey with these admirable faculty women, their students, and community is a treasured gift in my life.