Campus Life

UWF social work students visit Guatemala, engage in service learning

Students from the University of West Florida Department of Social Work traveled to Guatemala this summer to experience firsthand the impact of serving in an impoverished country.

Christopher Cotten, assistant professor of social work, led a group of 12 undergraduate and graduate students to impoverished regions in eastern Guatemala, including Zacapa and Chiquimula. The second annual service-learning trip was organized in collaboration with 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.

Latonia Jennings, a graduate student in the UWF Department of Social Work, said the trip was a valuable opportunity to go beyond reading a textbook to be immersed in another culture.

“There’s nothing like submerging yourself to really learn something,” she said. “We did a lot of preparation before the trip to learn about Guatemala, but when you can take what you’ve read about and then actually go there and see it, smell it, breathe it, feel it – there’s no better way to understand a different culture and way of life.”

During the trip, the students collaborated with social work students from a university in Guatemala to host a clothing distribution; visited a nutrition center run by Hearts in Motion, where they helped feed more than 100 children; hosted an activity day for disabled children and their mothers at a water park; and distributed food baskets to the elderly at a senior care center, among other activities.

Raven Taylor, a graduate student, said one of the most memorable moments of the trip happened when they visited a local village.

“We walked into the village as children gathered around us and asked for photos,” she said. “We were surrounded by poverty, but the kids were so proud of their homes and couldn’t wait to show them off. Something that should have been depressing ended up being a really positive experience, because of their happiness.”

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

For Apollo Perry, senior social work major, visiting the villages offered a valuable glimpse of how the social service system works in Guatemala.

“While visiting the local villages, we got to see how social workers are heavily integrated within the system,” he said. “In one village, we were handing out clothes when we saw a little boy with a severely bowed leg. Karen Sheeringa, the founder of Hearts in Motion, noticed and spoke with his mother about getting treatment. A few days later when we visited a local hospital, we were told he had been brought in and would receive free medical treatment and physical therapy. We got to see it come full circle through the collaboration of different social service programs, and it was really interesting to see how they all worked together.”

Although Cotten has led several groups of students on similar service-learning trips, he said each time offers a new experience.

“This particular trip was very emotional for the students,” he said. “It’s always an impactful experience for students to go to a developing country and compare it to their lives in the U.S. My favorite part is seeing the impact it has on the students, introducing them to Guatemala and seeing it through their eyes.”

This trip was funded in part through the UWF Student Government Association and the College of Education and Professional Studies Emerge Program, developed to help faculty design and utilize high impact practices to deepen student learning and engagement and raise levels of performance, retention and success for all students. For more information about the Emerge Program, visit

For additional information about the UWF Department of Social Work, visit