This summer, I had the pleasure of working with The Guatemalan Project, a small non-profit that serves the community of El Triunfo. As an Economics and Spanish major, I set out to work with Microfinance and community development. My work ranged from attending community meetings to processing microloans to managing scholarship funds. I have not only grown professionally from this experience, but in a personal sense as well. I witnessed first-hand the impact of microloans on an impoverished village. I built life-long relationships with the people of El Triunfo. My spoken Spanish has majorly improved. As my first international trip alone, I was quite nervous about how I would adjust to life in Guatemala. However, besides the humidity and the mosquitos, I loved every moment of my summer experience.
I wanted to leave Guatemala having a good understanding of the role of microloans and having completed a meaningful project for the company. The work I did with The Guatemalan Project allowed me to fulfill these two goals. I was in charge of Proyecto Tambos, a project consisting of about 50 microloans that allowed people to purchase water storage bins. This project was especially beneficial to the community because El Triunfo was suffering from a lack of a good water piping system that ensured water for all; people even lacked something to store the little water they could get. This microloan project is just one of the many efforts that the non-profit undertakes to meet the needs of the community. Witnessing people needing to make loans of even just 200 Quetzales, the equivalent of $25, in order to buy fertilizer for their milpas (corn fields) showed me that microloans do make a difference. I also prepared multiple reports to analyze the finances of the company that ranged from total loan values to scholarship budgets. One of the reports showed that 80% of all the loans are paid back, demonstrating to me that microloans are effective. As part of my internship, I wanted to get to know the community. I conversed with the people to learn more about their culture and about the educational and job opportunities. I accompanied a family in wood gathering; I trekked into the wilderness, used a machete, carried wood to the house and most importantly bonded with the family. Furthermore, being able to take part in a “jornada medica” in which an American doctor held an “open clinic” for two days in the village handing out medicine was both amazing and jarring. Most of the common illnesses are related to poverty: backaches caused by a lack of proper shoes that provide support and simply overworking one’s body. I observed the struggles of living in an impoverished village, even though to the people of El Triunfo, it is just considered a part of daily life.
Having never been out of the US before, I didn’t know much about Central America. My internship in Guatemala was eye opening. I observed the culture of patriarchy in El Triunfo. Men work in the farms and women cook, clean and take care of up to 15 children at home. In fact, most of the families that I saw lacked a man in the household because they are away working. I was once told that making tortillas, one of the most common food in Guatemala, is “women’s work.” Being a Wellesley College student who’s a proud feminist, this was hard to take in. Being Hmong, I come from a patriarchal community. All my life, I have fought to have equal treatment with my brothers and fought to show my parents that daughters are just as capable as sons. Having this background, I was drawn to the young girls. I decided to subtlety combat the gender inequalities. With all the young males I talked with, I tried to expand their perspectives by asking them to reflect on the gender roles. I encouraged young girls to pursue education and wait to get married because the typical marrying age is 15-16. At the same time, it saddens me to think that the reality is that most of the girls will not have the opportunity to attend school past the elementary level, if even that. School is too expensive for most families to afford. After this experience, I truly appreciate the education I have attained and am receiving from Wellesley.
Although the people live in poverty and their culture differs from our own here in the US, I saw many similarities between the people of El Triunfo and us. We all want and value the same thing: happiness, financial security, family etc. Because I am in the US, I am given the chance to be educated, where as a girl my age in El Triunfo is usually married and uneducated. I don’t understand why I deserve this opportunity any more than she does. This inspires me to work with international economic policy and microfinance to address these international inequalities. Although my experience with The Guatemalan Project has shown me that microloans do have a positive impact on communities, I was surprised to learn that by no means do they eradicate poverty. Before my internship, I viewed microfinance as a way to get rid of poverty in developing countries, when in reality it is just an important tool to help alleviate poverty.
Working with the company, I learned to become flexible, because as my director said, “flexibility is a must in social work.” I learned to engage with the community in a respectful and enthusiastic way. I learned the importance of leading by example, as my director did. I observed what it takes to make a good leader: a kind, caring heart as well as the strength it takes to ensure everything runs smoothly. I observed that it can be challenging to run a non-profit, but also saw that the rewards are worth it. I will continue to learn about development economics and microfinance during my time at Wellesley. I plan to work with a company like The Guatemalan Project again because I am drawn its focus on sustainable changes in the community. My internship this summer was a great test run for my future career.
Mai Yer Xiong
Class of 2014
The Guatemalan Project
El Triunfo, Guatemala