Alumni Spotlight: Bethany Smith

Bethany is an author and a Disability Rights advocate who is pursuing studies at Western Carolina University in Pre-Law.

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Why did you choose this program?

I have a bucketlist of places I need to visit – at least one country from each region of the world. I had gone to Ireland in May, and I was trying to mark off either South or Central America next.

There were a bunch of agencies I found online that offered Spanish classes and Cultural Immersion programs for very cheap. However, the first several places I reached out to either took a long time to respond to me, or never responded at all.

Maximo Nivel was the first place that not only replied quickly to my email, but set up a phone call with a representative less than 24 hours later. Once I spoke to a person over the phone and realized how legitimate and opportunistic a program Maximo was for such a low price, I decided to jump on board and booked a spot with their Spanish Program in Guatemala for the month of July 2018.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

The program assigned me a local home residence in Antigua to stay in, arranged airport pickup and transportation to said home, and gave me a map with directions to the school as well as a list of emergency numbers and other information I might need. They provided an orientation the first morning, placed me into a Spanish level based on the results of an exam they gave, and assigned me to a teacher who worked with me one-on-one for two hours a day during the duration of my two-week stay in Guatemala.

During orientation, I was given tips, guidelines, and facts about the city and country I was staying in as well as how to get around and how to stay safe. We were advised that if we needed any help, we could come to the main office and they would offer their support.

The staff were very friendly and did a good job at both offering a shoulder to lean on while simultaneously pushing for autonomy and independence. One day, I fell and injured my ankle, so I couldn't leave the home I was in as it was several flights of stone steps underground; I didn't want to pay for a doctor, so Maximo sent their medical specialist directly out to check on me for free. While there, he asked me if I wanted someone to follow up with me the next day.

When it comes to getting around the city, participants are basically on their own. When you arrive, you are given directions to the campus and back and told how to navigate the town; however, actually getting around and navigating are up to you. You are responsible for your own transportation. At first, I walked to the school and back – it was about 15 minutes of walking each way. After my third day, though, I started using public transportation instead. Antigua, for instance, has a lot of tuk tuks – little golf-car-like vehicles used as taxis. A one-way ride anywhere is either 10 or 15 quetzales, depending on what your driver will take. One of my roommates told me that 10q is the local fee, 15q is the tourist fee; but if you're a tourist with good bargaining skills, you can maybe get them to charge you the local rate.

Breakfast and dinner are provided at the residence you stay in, but lunch is your responsibility. You're expected to show up to the campus by your own means/method for whatever your assigned schedule is, but everything outside of your schedule is free time. You're able to do whatever you want, whenever you want; when I wasn't in my 2-hour classes, I was either relaxing at my home stay or exploring the rest of Antigua.

I also signed up for various excursions through the tour-desk situated at the front of the office. The tours cost extra money, but if you signed up for one, transportation and interpretation were included. When leaving, you will have to arrange transportation back to the airport on your own. Shuttles are offered for $25 per person; other options exist, too.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

If you're from a developed country, be prepared for a significant environmental culture shock. Guatemala, for instance, doesn't have clean water, and the pipes in its sewage system are very weak. You're not supposed to flush toilet paper there (you have to put it in a trash can instead), and as far as drinking water, unless you buy it pre-purified from a store or restaurant, you can't drink it at all without getting sick.

I was aware of this before arriving, however I wasn't aware of exactly how difficult it would be to make that kind of transition. I'm prescribed medications 3 times a day, which results in 2 things: One, I have to have water (or any beverage) to take them. Two, a side effect of one of them is dry mouth and excessive thirst. Those two things aren't a big issue for me in the United States because I have immediate access to liquids on any given notice, and it's easy for me to access cold fluids when the inevitable thirst in my dry mouth arrives.

In Guatemala, this wasn't the case; the night I arrived, after being driven an hour to Antigua from the Guatemala City airport after 8:00 PM, I didn't have any bottled liquids with me, and I couldn't find anything to drink in the home. My host was asleep or away (it was her father who let us in, and he didn't speak English) so I didn't know where the clean water supply was, and I wasn't sure how to ask. I couldn't just drink from the sink, so I had to scramble to figure out how to take my pills before going to bed.

Each day after, for the total of 14 days I was in Guatemala, one of my biggest concerns was staying hydrated (as one of my prescriptions, Lithium, can also dehydrate you quickly in the sun) and stocked with beverages I bought from the local tienda in my room so that the thirst caused by my medications, and the increased risk of dehydration, didn't pose a consistent threat.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

It will likely seem pretty repetitive, which is a good thing for most. Depending on what schedule you're given by the office after orientation, the "average day" could vary in time but would otherwise look the same. I was given daily class times of 11-1, but my sister, who came with me, was given 9-11. She had to wake up early every morning to get to class on time, whereas I got to sleep in.

I would wake up at about 10 AM (which is still pretty early for me considering that when I'm at my apartment in North Carolina, I typically go to bed at like 2-3 in the morning and sleep in until noon the next day.) I would leave my house at about 10:30, take a tuk tuk to campus, sit through 2 hours of lessons. They were quite challenging, but that was a good thing as I wanted to advance my Spanish, and a consistent challenge was what it took.

After class was over, I'd usually meet up with my sister in the garden of the Maximo Nivel campus, and we would decide where we were going to eat for lunch. After lunch, we would walk around and either sight-see the town or go shopping in the various shops and by approaching the various street vendors.

On four separate days, we took excursions – to Yalu Farm on a Saturday, Monterrico Beach on a Sunday, Volcan Pacaya, and the Ixmche Mayan Ruins.

Long story short, an average day/week consists of waking up, eating breakfast, going to your class, eating lunch, and spending the rest of the day doing whatever you like. Some people take 6-hour classes, so they might not have as much free time. Weekends are open, so you can either take advantage of that by sleeping or exploring other places via tours. There are Salsa classes every Tuesday, cooking classes every Wednesday, and once a week, there is a photo walk around town.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was having a relapse or going through some kind of medical crisis while abroad. I receive intensive healthcare services in my county in the US; I see a doctor on average once a month (sometimes more often), and a therapist once a week. I'm connected with multiple providers and services in my city. I take six prescription medications three times a day, one of which requires regular lab work, and I am frequently admitted into the hospital for inpatient care.

Because of all these things, I was a little wary about being out of the country for so long – actually, it's the very reason why I searched for programs like Maximo Nivel to begin with, because originally I was supposed to go to Mexico for an entire month for a Study Abroad opportunity, but I knew in my heart that a month was way too long for me to be away from my treatment team. Rather than ditch the Study Abroad completely and refuse to go anywhere in July, I decided to look for programs that offered more flexible, shorter-term opportunities instead.

I signed up for two weeks in Guatemala with Maximo Nivel because I felt that it was a much safer plan for me than one month in Mexico, but even with the shorter trip, I was still secretly afraid. What if something happened while I was across the border? What if something went wrong with one of my meds? What if my Lithium level spiked too high or too low? What if I had an unexpected episode?

I suffer from Bipolar disorder, so I get unpredictable bouts of depression and mania. What if my brain decided to act up and send me into a dark spot in Guatemala? What if I became manic, or had a psychotic break? What if I became sick or unstable but couldn't get proper help for it because I didn't have my doctors because they were thousands of miles away? Without my traditional US health insurance and network of providers who knew my case and condition intimately from back to front and head to toe, by going abroad to Guatemala for 2 weeks, I was putting myself at risk of having to fight for myself in a vulnerable position utterly alone.

That didn't happen. Granted, there were times I struggled – I won't lie and say that the process was perfect or peachy clean. Some days were harder than others, and there were definitely moments where I felt myself slipping, where I had to try harder than usual to stay okay. But while there were moments that I felt symptoms creeping in, I found myself fighting them off in different ways. Whether I made myself go out and do something, or I kept myself distracted on Facebook or Youtube, or even if I had to crawl up in bed in my room and take a long nap... Having homework for my lessons helped, so sometimes forcing myself to pick up my textbook and recite words or sentences in Spanish for the next day was all it took to bite the beast and ride the wave.

Once the end of my second week started approaching, I realized that I had this; I was much stronger than I gave myself credit for, and the two weeks were going to go by just as smoothly and swiftly as I had dreamed and hoped they would.

What's one thing you would like to tell people considering pursuing the same thing?

Try it. If you can financially afford it, go for it and don't let anything get in your way. Of course, take into consideration your own personal limits and boundaries; don't let limits and boundaries stop you, but instead, if you have them, learn to balance the two things.

Allow yourself to go on adventures while maintaining personal stability. Find ways to explore the world while holding on to the things you need. In a world where people tend to view in extremes, it's okay to search for a middle ground. Not everyone who travels is able-bodied or healthy, just as not everyone who travels is rich. If you want to visit a specific country but can only do so for a day, then go for a day! Spend one night then come back to your home.

Circumstances don't have to stop you from pursuing a passion of travel.

And if you're reading this, and you have doubts about whether or not you can safely or successfully go to another country, let me share one more fact about myself. I was once a patient in an institution, and was in that facility for two years. From 2012 to 2014, I was locked up, a ward of the state, too sick to do anything and consistently told that I would never have a normal life. For so long, I heard, even from professionals, that I would always be too unstable and too sick and too unwell.

At one point in my life, I was told that I would spend the rest of my life within the walls of the facility where I was being held. And yet, a few years later, not only have I been discharged, but I've gotten my own apartment, gone back to school, done an internship, been hired for temp work, published a book, and now I'm travelling the world! I still go in the hospital from time to time. I still have appointments every week and frequent blood tests and ER visits, but I didn't let that stop me from going to Ireland with my school last May for a week.

I didn't let it stop me from going to Guatemala for two weeks. Instead, I just experimented with the art of balancing two important needs in my life – the need to be healthy, and the need to be free – and so far, that balancing act doesn't seem to be so hard at all.