McGeorge School of Law

Law Students Bear Witness To Devastation in Guatemala

June 10, 2010

Aftermath of Guatemala Disaster

Photo by Bret Sachter

McGeorge's Inter-American Summer Program in Guatemala winds up this weekend and it's not an overstatement to say that this program, now in its second year, has given its participants a new perspective on life.

Just days into their three-week courses, 11 students and two professors witnessed a series of natural disasters that struck the densely populated Central American country and threw the everyday lives of millions of people into turmoil and tragedy.

First, there was a volcanic eruption that left much of the capital city, Guatemala City, covered in ash. The McGeorge program in nearby Antigua was unaffected by that event, but several days later a tropical storm hit much of the country, killing nearly 200 people and wiping out roads and bridges. The torrential rains opened a huge sink hole in Guatemala City. While our students and professors were unhurt, they were unable to return from a weekend excursion to Lake Atitlan, about two hours away from the program site, when the storm hit. Roads were washed out, and they had to postpone classes for a day because they could not get back to Antigua.

"All our students are fine," said Professor Raquel Aldana, the director of the program, "but we all realized we had to take action to help as many people as possible while completing our studies."

In addition to helping out with cleanup and relief efforts, the students sent a letter to President Obama urging that Guatemalans in the U.S. be granted temporary protected status to avoid deportation into a disaster zone. A similar reprieve was granted by the federal government to Haitians living in the U.S. after the big earthquake hit Haiti.

In addition to Aldana, McGeorge Professor Marjorie Florestal and Professor Enrique Fernando Sanchez Usera of Rafael Landivar University are teaching in the Inter-American Program. Two of the courses are being taught in Spanish, and one is being taught in English. Although most of the participating students are fluent in Spanish, two are supplementing their learning experience by taking a Spanish immersion course with University of the Pacific Professor Katie Golsan along with her students from the undergraduate Stockton campus.

The Inter-American Program students have visited the National Congress in Guatemala City this week, and the Congress stopped its discussion of the government's response to the state of emergency to recognize the presence of the students. On separate occasions, they also toured the Guatemala Supreme Court and had a personal meeting with Nobel Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu.

The seven McGeorge students participating in the program are Joshua Aldrich, Sara Bobbitt, Monica Cornejo, Keith Ebright, Ginny Ellis, Alisa Reinhardt and
Carrie Stafford. They are studying together with students from four other American law schools and 12 students from Rafael Landivar University in Guatemala City. Five Americans will stay on for the second part of the program, an eight-week externship with one of several non-governmental agencies.