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Alumna Rebecca Nelson Shines under the Mayan Sun

Dr. Rebecca L. Nelson, a SUNY Potsdam anthropology and archaeology alum, has been busy since graduating from Potsdam in 2007. At that time, she went straight into the master’s and PhD program in anthropology at the University of Connecticut,
where she completed a dissertation on volunteer tourism in grass root development organizations. I recently interviewed Rebecca in order to learn more about her experiences after SUNY Potsdam, as well as her current position as an Executive Director of
America Solidaria USA.

Although she had majored in both anthropology and archaeological studies (she even did a field school at James Madison’s Montpelier during her time here), Rebecca’s interests were leaning towards cultural anthropology when she graduated. As a result, she pursued graduate work in the subject and began her fieldwork in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.

Rebecca’s original research interest was looking at the handicraft industry in tourism. She volunteered with a federation of Mayan weaving cooperatives. However, she started to realize her growing interest in volunteer tourism. Volunteer tourism is a new way for tourists to discover a country by playing a role in the local community. Rebecca spent three years in Guatemala refining her dissertation on the dynamics between the international volunteers and their hosts. In other words, volunteer tourists shared their knowledge and experiences about their countries with their hosts and in return the cooperative leaders exposed them to Mayan customs and weaving classes.

She specifically focused on how volunteer tourism created capacity or dependency in host organizations and the dynamics of cross-cultural interactions between the host and the volunteer tourist. Another aspect of her dissertation involved Mayan leaders commodifying their culture to promote their products in international markets. After Rebecca completed her dissertation in 2015,
she became executive director of America Solidaria U.S, an organization that takes volunteers from the United States to various Latin American countries to improve the quality of life for poor individuals. The organization also takes Latin American families to the United States to volunteer on various projects.

One of the many tasks that Rebecca is involved in is talking to the Latin American families that come to the U.S., and in those conversations she gets to hear how they compare cultures. She states that there is a lot of cross-cultural cheering that takes place during these discussions.

The organization is open to graduating students with a strong Spanish language background, even offering a stipend for those who volunteer. To apply, you can go to their website and click on the “participate” link. Rebecca encourages all who are
interested to apply, she states that she would love to have a fellow SUNY Potsdam student experience what this organization has to offer.

For more information about America Solidaria, visit:

~ Article Written by Linden Montague. Linden Montague is a senior at SUNY Potsdam and is pursuing a degree in biology (B.S) and archaeological studies (B.A) with a minor in biomedical anthropology. Linden plans to attend graduate school and become a top researcher in the fields of biological anthropology, genetic and biomedical sciences, paleopathology, and archaeology. This is her first year as an editor for the Collegiate. To view the entire 2016 issue of the Collegiate Anthropologist, go online.

Dr. Nelson carried out ethnographic fieldwork at Mayan weaving cooperatives in Guatemala for her dissertation research. She is now the executive director of America Solidaria U.S. (Photo courtesy of Rebecca Nelson)