In the Jungle

Three students on their summer spent teaching computer literacy in Guatemala.
We knew that if we wanted to make a difference, we would need to make one of the classrooms in the local school look like the first floor of Crerar on a Thursday night.

We're asking our students what they were up to and how they made the most of their summer. In the latest installment of our Summer Postcards series, we hear from three students about teaching computer literacy in Gutamela.

--Jessen O'Brien, New Media Editor

This summer, we (Kelly Wolenberg, AB ’11, Sam Pollock AB ’11, and Emily Chen, class of 2013) sought to bring computer literacy to a town in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. With funds acquired at the University of Chicago, we aimed to transform a classroom into a state of the art computer lab.

The idea for the project came to us when we visited the same town in the summer of 2010 as translators for a 10-day surgical trip. After seeing that not one person in the town spoke English, and very few students had ever touched a computer—two skills that we knew were incredibly lucrative in a tourism-heavy economy—we began to discern the outlines of what a large-scale effort to change these realities would look like.  We knew that if we wanted to make a difference, we would need to make one of the classrooms in the local school look like the first floor of Crerar on a Thursday night.

Of course this would take money. Lots of money. More money than we could raise with a Chinese bun sale outside of Cobb. So we turned to the many grant competitions offered at the University of Chicago and began applying to every one. At first, we felt that our decision to undertake the project would ruin our golden days at the U of C, the final spring after four long years. But instead, the project grew, and our commitment deepened as other students, professors, and counselors began signing on to help in any way they could. Pretty soon, we found ourselves in Pilsen, giving a pilot workshop to adults. We celebrated by eating tacos afterwards with our new RSO, Opportunities through Operating Systems (OtOS).

But it wasn’t just students and faculty who were enthusiastic about what we were doing. Some people with money were excited too. The Kathryn Davis Projects for Peace committee at the U of C selected our team to receive the $10,000 prize.

After months of preparation and cash in hand, it was time to roll up our sleeves and make the dream come to life. What followed was a several-month-long whirlwind of bus rides, tropical sickness, endless rice and beans, and the unfailing work of our Guatemalan partners, all of which is chronicled on our blog.  Thinking back over the experience, several images in particular come to mind: Standing in the dark after a lightning strike, waiting to see if our surge protectors had indeed protected against the surge; and the green lights illuminating the faces of the kids when it turns out they had; soccer balls flying through the windows as we explained that, “I am 10 years old” is not a possessive state as in Spanish, but a characteristic state in English; standing before the computer room after recess, the students pushing and shoving to get inside for class.

If we learned anything from the project, it is that this kind of effort takes years, not months, to accomplish. We promised our kids that we’d be back, and next time with more of the fiercely intelligent, adaptive students that our own school is so good at creating. During this school year, OtOS will start preparing for our next attempt to spread the life of the mind to the corners of the earth. If you’d like to get involved, please see our website.

Tagged: Summer Postcard, Kelly Wolenberg, Sam Pollock, Emily Chen