Bernice Markley of Youngsville, PA spent the entire 45-minute ascent of the Pacaya Volcano, an active volcano complex in southern Guatemala, apologizing to her horse.
“I just kept repeating, ‘I’m so sorry I’m making you do this!’…and [my guide] was howling; she thought it was hilarious.”
But still the horse trudged on, as a landscape that was almost lunar in its starkness and lack of vegetation materialized. A thick fog clung to the sides of the volcano as Bernice and her guide made their way through the low-hanging clouds that blanket Guatemala’s mountain regions. Eventually, the way became too steep, even for their deceptively hardy and sure-footed mounts, and they had to continue the rest of the way on foot.
“We couldn’t get to the absolute summit, because, you know, it’s an active volcano, and so you get all the stuff that goes along with active volcanoes, the heat, the sulfur,” explained Bernice, “But we got pretty close. In fact, as we neared the top one of our guides took us to a little place where the heat from the center of the volcano escapes and it’s so hot you can roast marshmallows over it.”
To be clear, climbing up volcanoes to make delicious roast marshmallows is not a typical day in the life of Bernice Markley. Neither is going to the ancient Mayan city of Tikal and climbing up the steps of 2,800-year-old temples. Or witnessing a bullfight, or lying out on a black sand beach, or being regularly greeted by a one-eyed parrot that loves to say “Hola.” At least, they weren’t until Bernice Markley made the decision to study abroad in Antigua Guatemala  at La Union Spanish School  for a summer.
Bernice worked with Theresa Baginski (email ), an assistant professor of Spanish, to organize the trip. Prof. Baginski typically takes a group of students to La Union every other summer, however the summer Bernice wanted to go, there wasn’t a trip planned. Despite that, Bernice and Prof. Baginski were able to work out an agreement so that Bernice could receive credit for her time abroad. All in all, Bernice said, the planning process took about a few months, but if students don’t already have a passport, she recommends allowing a bit more time.
At La Union, Bernice had her own personal teacher, who would mix more structured, traditional classroom learning with real-world experiences, taking her into the markets and the city parks to speak with locals. Her Spanish, Bernice said, improved by leaps and bounds.
“It was a very supportive learning environment,” said Bernice. “I can honestly say that the trip was extremely instrumental in facilitating my ability to speak Spanish and a deeper understanding of the language.”
Integral to that supportive environment was the Guatemalan family she stayed with.
“My family was incredible,” said Bernice. “I really felt that I was a family member. They helped me with my Spanish at every turn. When it was time for me to return to the States it felt like I was leaving my own family. It was extremely difficult to say goodbye.”
But even though the excursions were incredible, and even though her family was wonderful and supportive, and even though her Spanish has improved immensely, Bernice’s final takeaway from her study abroad experience is something much simpler.
“The people there love life, they really do,” she said. “It’s so different from here. As United Statesians, as we would be called in Spanish, we are spoiled rotten. We want more, more, more, more. It doesn’t make us happy. It doesn’t make us nicer people. These people have so little, but they’re grateful for what they have, and they’re more than happy to share it with you. I mean, when I came back…it’s something that changes your life.”
Advice for students considering studying abroad: “[Studying abroad] is very intimidating, it really is, and I understand that, but you have to get past that intimidation because once you are in that culture, and once you’re eyes are opened to the fact that the United States isn’t the only place on the planet, it is an amazing experience, an amazing experience. And as far as advancing your language skills in another language: 100% better. Being able to use it on a constant basis and hear it on a constant basis. I guess my best is advice is this: tap in to your inner wanderer.”