Global issues up close and personal

What exactly is global citizenship?

For UBC students Mace Mateo and Meghan Price, it means being ruthlessly honest about their role in developing countries.

After visiting an orphanage while living in Guatemala last term, Mateo and Price questioned “poverty tourism.”

“We asked ourselves whether our presence actually helps anyone in those situations, or are we there more for ourselves?” recalls Mateo, a third-year student in Asian Studies.

“We talked everyday among ourselves about these issues,” adds Price, a second-year Arts student who is focusing on international relations. “Quite a few of us had already volunteered for international organizations. Some had already done work in places like Kenya and Romania.”

Price and Mateo were among the 26 participants selected for the Faculty of Arts’ Term Abroad in Global Citizenship (GCTA) in Guatemala during September to December 2009.

In its second year, the GCTA invites students to experience service learning while earning credits for UBC courses in sociology and philosophy. The initiative allows faculty and students to assess their commitment to social justice and to understand more fully the global impact of individual choices. GCTA combines class lectures, course work and engagement with non-profit organizations and citizens groups. For example, a popular GCTA volunteer activity is helping out at a coffee cooperative run by former guerillas.

Mateo and Price started their GCTA term in Guatemala by volunteering with the non-profit organization Habitat for Humanity. While living in Xela — Guatemala’s second-largest city with a population of 300,000 — they helped one family lay the foundation for a simple four-room house. In addition, Mateo and Price helped some families build brick and stone stoves with chimneys to replace open fires in their kitchens.

“These stoves burned hotter and quicker and didn’t pollute the indoor air so people’s lungs were healthier,” says Mateo.

Sylvia Berryman, an associate professor in the Dept. of Philosophy, says she’s drawn to the intense and engaging nature of hands-on teaching and learning that the term abroad fosters. She is currently in Guatemala organizing a second GCTA for the summer term.

“It’s one thing to read about poverty, justice or violence in distant places, it’s quite another to work with a poor family inside their home or to see the exhumed skeleton of a massacre victim,” says Berryman. “GCTA is demanding, but many faculty feel the impact on students is worth the effort. Experiences like these really complement UBC coursework.”

Overall, the program gave her great hope that things can change, says Mateo. In particular, she was inspired by a local initiative that supported the poorest of the poor — women and children who scavenged for a living at the city dump. Called “Camino Seguro” — Spanish for safe passage — the organization helped the children attend school, while providing skills training for their mothers.

“It was wonderful to witness how they evolved, from picking over garbage to making and selling jewelry from recycled materials.”

Mateo says she saw many parallel struggles in Guatemala with those in her native country. In 2007, she had immigrated to Vancouver with her family from the Philippines. “I hope to do graduate work in the arena of Asia Pacific policy studies and contribute to social change that way.”

Price, who recently performed as a dancer in the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies, says even as she’s settling back into life in Canada, the experience in Guatemala continues to direct her attention to larger global issues. “It’s very sobering to consider that 11 per cent of Guatemalan children are in danger of starving to death over the next six months.”

Mateo and Price, plus a third roommate Anthony Ecclissi, all roomed together while in Guatemala and are currently renting a house together in Kitsilano, which has become a de facto gathering place for GCTA alumni. Their discussions continue, she says, as does the clarification about their support for those in the world struggling to survive.

“We’re not there to rescue people who are helpless or passive, but to support expert citizens who are expert problem-solvers,” says Mateo.

Price concurs, “We acknowledge the complexities of what it’s like in the world, but we make a commitment and take action in the ways we can.”