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For Immediate Release
November 1, 2012

For more information, contact
John Follaco
(585) 395-5159
jfollaco@brockport.edu

From The College at Brockport to a Guatemalan Rainforest

Alumnus Proves Civil Engagement Can Make a Difference

Press Release Photo Randall Shea '84 (middle) with Casey O'Mara '11 and Brockport senior Laura Clark.

Randall Shea ’84 (Business Administration) never planned to live in the rainforest jungles of Guatemala. He never planned to open the world of learning to Mayan villagers and their children, nor teach middle school, nor write a play on horrific war violence and then another on gender issues. His first play was entitled There is Nothing Hidden That Will Not be Made Known, and it shined a spotlight on human rights issues. The play toured throughout Guatemala and eventually was filmed by the BBC and included in their 10-part series The Terror and the Truth. After the success of this play, Randall, in 2003, was commissioned by the European Union to create a play dealing with gender issues. Randall has done all this and so much more, including helping to bring the outside world to the remote village of Santa Maria Tzeja via computers and the Internet with a bit of help from a “small” company known as Microsoft.

Randall has dedicated his life to improving the lives of others, and in so doing has enriched his own life beyond measure. Education and gender equality are two of his life passions, and he is making a difference in the lives of the people in his village—and it hasn’t taken an entire lifetime to see the rewards of his labor. This past year, Randall’s wife, Juana Perez, became their village’s first woman mayor. “Juana wanted to serve as a role model to others, noting that by accepting the position of mayor she was living the message we have been sending these many years. Gender equality isn’t just a theory, but a reality to be lived,” said Randall during his recent visit to The College at Brockport.

The author Dr. Clark Taylor wrote about education and progress in Randall’s community. In his writing, he included a chapter titled, “In the Turn of Just One Generation,” which speaks of the progression of Santa Maria Tzeja’s educational process in which Mayan parents, illiterate themselves, have witnessed their children being educated—attending school and progressing through middle school then high school and ultimately university. “The Mayan’s have a thirst for their children to have a better life then they had. Up until this generation the Mayans have worked at menial labor for meager wages. Today, their children have the opportunities that education brings,’ said Randall.

When selecting a college and major, Randall chose Brockport and the College’s business administration program. Along the way he took a course in French and liked it so much he decided to add a second major in the romance language.

“I graduated from Brockport and went on to a job at Campbell Soup as an internal auditor. It was a nice job with a brief case, much travel and a lot of money. I was enjoying it, but when a friend asked me what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, I said I wanted to do something that I couldn’t even begin to imagine. At about that same time I learned the US was involved with a war in Nicaragua. I went there and saw the poverty and suffering that war helped to create. So I left Campbell Soup and went on to volunteer with a program called Witness for Peace,” said Randall.

Two years later Randall found himself working with Guatemalan refugees under the auspices of the Guatemala War Refugee Accompaniment Program. As the civil war in Guatemala began to wind down, the Guatemalan refugees were able to return to their homes and the villages they had fled—villages devastated and destroyed from years of war.

The Guatemalan people of Santa Maria Tzeja, most of who are indigenous Mayans, asked Randall to return with them and teach their children. That was 21 years ago and Santa Maria Tzeja has been his home ever since. Randall married Juana Perez whom he met at the University of Guatemala, and together they built their life around their four children—Kristina, 14; Phoebe, 12; Aida, 7; and Randall Jr., 4; and their commitment to help make education available to all the children in their village.

“Our village, which was carved out of the Guatemala rainforest, has no running water, and it was just two years ago that we got electricity. Ours is a simple lifestyle. Our children enjoy living in the natural environment of a rainforest with all its beauty,” said Randall who added that Santa Maria Tzeja is a 12-hour road trip from the capitol city with multiple changes of public transportation. “Sometimes the trip includes having to pull the vehicle out of the mud in order to continue on our way.” It’s another 14 hours of flights to reach the US, but Randall makes the trip each year as part of his speaking engagements and fundraising work for the village’s educational programs.

“People have told me that Santa Maria Tzeja is one of the most remote places they’ve ever visited, but students from The College at Brockport who come to teach English in our middle school and even at the University are well received by the people there.”

This was true for Casey O’Mara ’11. Casey majored in international studies, business management and Spanish, and spent a semester teaching English in Santa Maria Tzeja. “Everyone in the village is up at 5 AM because there is so much work to do, and the villagers have only the most basic tools,” said Casey, who awoke his first morning in the village to the sound of one of the men cutting the grass outside his window with a machete.

Laura Clark, a senior majoring in Spanish, women and gender studies, and French, and who is in the College’s Honors Program, spent a summer in Santa Maria Tzeja. Both Casey and Laura took the opportunity to teach English to village children while experiencing a culture very different from their own. “I enjoyed my experience there. The classroom was simple—just a white board and markers—and lessons were fun to teach. Everyone was so open and welcoming. I was comfortable in Santa Maria Tzeja from my first day. When it was time for me to leave, Juana Perez made a gift of this beautiful outfit,” Laura said, displaying the hand woven skirt, or corte, and handmade top called a huipil that she wore.

Speaking as one who has walked the path, Randall tells Brockport students: “Follow your heart, step into the unknown, while carefully considering where you want to go and what you want to do. This can open up pathways that you can’t even imagine. Take a foreign language—Spanish, French, Italian— whatever you like. This will help to open doors of opportunity regardless of the language you choose. The College at Brockport has an excellent Department of Foreign Languages,” said Randall, who likes to quote Mark Twain when encouraging students to travel abroad and move out of their comfort zones, saying, “Travel is fatal to ignorance.”

Corporate life might have had its material rewards, but Randall’s life in a rainforest has brought rewards of its own. “My life has been infinitely more rewarding and interesting having left the security of my corporate job because I know that I am contributing to and bettering the lives of others,” said Randall, who always includes a visit to his Alma Mater during his tours in the US. He uses his time at the College to share his personal experience and invite students to consider a study abroad program, or even spending a semester or summer in Guatemala. “These programs will open up possibilities with far-reaching potential,” he tells his audiences.

Randall also knows from experience how sharing with others the knowledge and skills one has developed is a way of paying it forward and opening doors of opportunity for others to walk through. “When I first started teaching, I taught math and science, and I didn’t know it at the time, but I was bringing about my own obsolescence because my students went on to high school and then university, becoming engineers and architects who have returned to our village and who now teach science and math to the students coming up behind them.” But this obsolescence at his own hands hasn’t put Randall out of a job. There’s still plenty of work for him to do. “My unique role now is my ability to come to the US and speak to people of good will as a way to raise money for our education processes. It’s another way for me to make a difference.”

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