By Martha Nodar
A desire to immerse himself in the study of the Spanish language brought Oglethorpe University President Lawrence Schall to a remote village in Guatemala during winter break.
“We visited San Juan de Laguna last year,” Schall said, referring to an earlier trip he and his wife had made to the place. “I became fixated on the idea of returning and learning to speak some form of Spanish.”
Embracing Lake Atitlan, San Juan de Laguna is a small, picturesque, non-touristy village on the western coast of Guatemala in Central America. Schall said that during his many trips to Latin America he had always wished he could speak the language.
“I had actually felt embarrassed that I am monolingual, as if everyone else in this hemisphere ought to speak my language in order for me to be understood,” he said.
Captured by the beauty of the village he had briefly visited, and determined to work on the language barrier, Schall began to make plans.
“When Larry told me he was headed to a remote Guatemalan village to immerse himself in Spanish classes, first, I was jealous because it sounded like an incredible adventure, and second, it sounded right up Larry’s alley,” said Oglethorpe alumnus Joseph Shelton, a member of the university’s board of trustees.
“Lake Atitlan is a gorgeous place, full of wonderful – but very poor – Mayans,” Schall said. “There are a host of social programs implemented in San Juan, such as a community garden where about 20 of the poorest families are able to grow food. There is also an educational program allowing Americans to help put a child through school. I am helping three children there as well as a family in the food program.”
Schall also had the opportunity to help a small group of teachers in the mornings by guiding them on how to teach English to their students. In the afternoons, he took Spanish lessons and practiced with his new friends from the village.
Building a rapport and sharing with others is nothing new to Schall, who is well known for his hands-on approach since arriving at Oglethorpe almost five years ago. From the beginning, he has strived to integrate his skills as an educator with his administrative role. He periodically meets with Oglethorpe students in an informal setting over pizza and soda called the “Fireside Chats,” to discuss anything they may have on their minds. Schall said spending time with students is the best part of his job.
“I absolutely adore the Fireside Chats,” junior Ashley Blake said. “We (students) feel totally comfortable with sharing our true feelings with President Schall. We all appreciate having one-on-one time with him because if he knows how we feel and where we stand on certain issues, he can be a voice to better represent us.”
Back on campus recently and thinking about his journey, he said, “Fairly soon into my trip, the Spanish (study) seemed less important to me than getting to know my host family, although, of course, the more I learned, the more I could speak to them. I remain deeply grateful and honored to come to know each and every one of them.”
Schall also had the chance to play his favorite sport while in San Juan. An avid soccer player during his younger days, Schall said he “had not played 10 straight days of soccer since 1974.
“It was like dying and going to Heaven,” he said.