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What do we mean by Service Learning?

As part of the Community Tourism program at De la Gente, we host several service learning groups a year for high schools, universities and other organizations. We often share snippets of the various activities the groups participate in, but what exactly is service learning and how do we put it in action at De la Gente? While service learning can take many forms, the definition from the National Service Learning Clearinghouse states that it aims to “integrate meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities”.

Groups spend time in the homes of the coffee producers working side to experience the local culture while sorting coffee for quality.

De la Gente Service Learning Trips intend to do just that. Our goal is to transform participants into advocates of social change and into people who value the community as a priority when making life decisions. We do this by having participants spend as much time as possible with community members, allowing space for reflection and discussion, and giving participants the opportunity to (briefly) experience what life is like for others. We incorporate the key components of immersive experiences, community service and reflection into our trips.


Student's Cooking Pepian in Lesbia's home during their trip.

One of our aims is to have participants see and experience different aspects of Guatemala, not just the touristy sites. Participants engage in immersive and cross-cultural activities with the coffee-growing communities with whom we work. They participate in field work and coffee processing to learn about daily livelihoods and how they have changed over time; scout the local market to experience how most Guatemalans shop for food and basic goods; prepare pepian, the national dish of Guatemala reserved for special occasions, with a local family using the freshest ingredients (including a live chicken); and are welcomed into community members’ homes for delicious, typical meals and conversation, which is one of many opportunities to practice one’s Spanish. These opportunities for engagement with communities, coupled with service and reflection, allow for meaningful learning experiences that go beyond the duration of the trip.

You really get to know the coffee farmer by following them up to his coffee fields on the sides of Agua Volcano and then into his home, seeing and taking part in how coffee makes it from the ground to the cup. Roasting, grinding, boiling and tasting the best coffee I have ever had and I loved getting to see what real life in Guatemala is like.
— SLT participant June 2016


With community service as a component of service learning, we carefully select the types of service participants engage in. Each year we solicit project proposals from members of the San Miguel Escobar cooperative. Service learning groups spend one to two days on farmer requested projects learning from and working alongside cooperative members on either home improvements or coffee processing projects. These projects have included making cement drying patios that serve for drying coffee and improved human health, cinderblock walls to protect coffee against the elements, fermentation tanks for more efficient coffee processing, cleaner burning stoves, and raised drying beds. We also emphasize that service isn’t just about physical labor, but also about providing opportunities for others. Every participant contributes to local economic development in their activities, from artisan workshops to meals with cooperative members. This is also a rewarding experience for community members to be able to share cross-cultural exchange with participants.

Student's mixing cement to build a wall with Juan Carlos to protect his drying patios.

Student's working with Mincho to plant new seedlings in the Santa Anita plant nursery.

This (hosting students & visitors) is always a beautiful experience. We don’t always speak the same language but we still find ways to communicate and share our culture and where we are from. They tell me stories about their lives and their families and I share mine. I tell them about life here in Ciudad Vieja and my wife cooks some of Guatemala’s traditional meals for them that she learned to prepare as a young girl from her mother.
— Angel Zuleta Martinez

Angel with his wife and children


To further learning opportunities and to drive at the holistic nature of service learning, participants partake in a number of engagement and reflection activities ranging from role playing, to discussions, to better understand global trade, food systems, development and social justice issues. Participants from all backgrounds find areas of interest. Reflection is an important component of service learning as it allows participants to critically think about and interpret the activities and service they participated in, which can be transformative in shaping their views, attitudes and values and instilling civic responsibility.  

By participating in service learning trips, we hope that participants leave with an expanded perspective on global issues, share what they have seen and learned with others, are empowered to elicit change, and stay connected with De la Gente and coffee growing communities.

*All photos by the very talented Heidi Giacalone from UW Eau Claire.

Student's and community members enjoying an afternoon at the local waterfall in the Santa Anita Commuity. 

Student's and community members enjoying an afternoon at the local waterfall in the Santa Anita Commuity.