Student Life

UWF social work students immersed in service learning in Guatemala

Social work students from the University of West Florida recently traveled to Guatemala to learn firsthand the impact of serving those in need.

Christopher Cotten, assistant professor in the UWF Department of Social Work, led a group of one undergraduate and six graduate students to Guatemala this August. The purpose of the trip was service-learning in impoverished regions in eastern Guatemala, including Zacapa and Chiquimula. It was organized through Hearts in Motion, a non-profit organization that provides care and medical treatment for children, families and communities in the U.S. and Central and South America.

The trip was part of a three-credit directed study, which also included five class sessions to teach students about the history, culture, politics and social welfare system of Guatemala.

In addition, the students developed service projects, which they implemented during the trip. Projects included: presentations at a mini-symposium hosted at a university to discuss U.S. immigration policies and reform, as well as contemporary issues facing Guatemala; an activity day for children born with cleft lips or palates; and an origami flower lesson at a senior center

Dannette Wallace, a graduate student in the Master of Social Work program, created the origami project that Cotten described as a highlight of the trip. She walked away from the experience with a much deeper understanding of life in Guatemala, she said.

“This was an amazing opportunity to engage with another culture in such an intense way,” she said. “I learned so much about the beauty, strength, creativity and resilience of the Guatemalan people.”

The trip was an initiative of the Emerge Program, organized by the UWF College of Professional Studies. This program was developed to help faculty design and utilize high impact practices to deepen learning and engagement and raise levels of performance, retention and success for all students. Cotten said he designed the Guatemala trip to immerse students in diverse and global learning, as well as service learning – both of which are considered high impact practices.

This was the first trip of its kind offered through the UWF Department of Social Work, but Cotten said he has plans to make it an annual opportunity within the department and beyond.

“It is my goal to expand the service-learning trip and add other disciplines so that we can offer more UWF students a life-altering, transformative experience and increase the impact we can have on impoverished Guatemalans,” he said.

For additional information about the Emerge Program, visit