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This New Language Immersion Program is Providing a Stable Job for Guatemalan Moms While Teaching You Spanish

In the classroom, the Spanish language is usually taught through lessons about grammar and conjugation. Project Olas aims to kick it up a notch, and provide students across the world with exposure to Guatemalan culture – in addition to language learning – while providing a safer working environment for local mothers, many of whom work in the garbage dump in Guatemala City’s Zone Three, making between three and five dollars per day. Project Olas provides these women with the opportunity to work from home, making five dollars every hour, which can lead to a dramatic change in their quality of life. 

It was founder Rebecca Cox’s host mother in Spain that planted the seed for Project Olas, with her capacity for cross-cultural communication, and when Cox began studying at Georgetown, she spent time tutoring ESL students in Washington DC schools. When she noticed that one of her student’s families used the communication app WhatsApp all the time, she wondered why people didn’t use it for ESL tutoring more frequently. Here, Project Olas was born. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Project Olas (@projectolas) on

In order to bring her idea to fruition she reached out to Safe Passage, a nonprofit in her home state of Maine. Through Safe Passage, she learned that 70 percent of the community in Guatemala City Zone Three had access to cell phones and the internet. She thought that with this internet access, there was no reason local mothers had to work in the garbage dump. 

Project Olas was planning on beginning a pilot program in April, but when Guatemala shut down as a result of the pandemic, and a mandate blocked many women from legally selling the items they created to supplement their income, a two-person pilot program was opened to the public. Project Olas received 10 students right off the bat and employed even more mothers, and even some native speakers have registered for lessons to immerse themselves in a culture that is not their own.

“I really thought this would just be a conversational Spanish practice service, and I had big hopes for the cross-cultural communication because of the motherly love that’s put into it, but I had no idea. Students tell me things like it’s changed their life. It’s changed their academic path at their school,” Cox says. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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It’s also helping the mothers develop their professional skills and opening up leadership opportunities for those in the community – the organization hired a local coordinator, Paola, a mother who grew up in Zone Three. For some of the Olas moms, Cox hopes that this work is just a stepping stone. “A lot of them had kids really young, but they have great ambitions to become a doctor or a lawyer, and they’re brilliant,” Cox says. “We want to give them some skills, but also just be that income coming in while they move towards the future.” For older mothers, Cox just hopes that they no longer have to engage with the dangerous work in the garbage dump. 

Cox also hopes that these conversations will provide students with a deeper understanding of these mothers’ culture, inspiring them to learn more and take action, especially now. “You know, [they’re] living in a tiny little metal hut with sometimes up to 16 family members, and you hear about how they’re living and how they’re showing up for their community and how strong they are – it’s really inspiring to talk to these women at a time like this,” she says. 

To get involved you can register for lessons — which begin at $13 an hour — or begin a Project Olas chapter at your high school or university – to fundraise for students who can’t afford lessons, get involved with training programs, prepare to go abroad and more. 

Elizabeth Karpen

Columbia Barnard '22

Lizzie Karpen is a junior at Barnard College, the most fuego of women’s colleges, studying Political Science and English with a concentration in Film. To argue with her very unpopular opinions, send her a message at [email protected] or @lizziekarpen on Instagram and Twitter.
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