Monday, March 17, 2014

A short article

My school asked me to write a short article about my experience abroad and the importance of experiential learning. Even though they left it unpublished, I wanted to share it:

I jumped off an Ecuadorian bridge into a 50 meter free fall high above the river below, biked 37 miles along the highway, observed the many wonders of the Amazon rain forest, hiked volcanoes and cloud forests, experienced the evolutionary diversity of the Galápagos Islands, and climbed the Incan ruins of Machu Picchu. And those were just the weekend and spring break excursions.
“It was stunning.” That’s been my go-to response when people ask me about my semester in Quito, Ecuador, studying at la Universidad San Francisco de Quito and completing an internship in the south part of the city. I lived with my host mother in a three bedroom apartment 9,000 feet above sea level, with her daughter and two-year-old grandson. I took the bus 20 minutes to the university each day, dropping into the valley of Cumbayá, where I took four classes, all in Spanish. Just riding a public bus in Ecuador proved to be an invaluable window into a wonderful culture.
                Perhaps the most rewarding part of my experience was my internship. Three days a week I traveled 90 minutes one-way by bus to get to the southern part of Quito, where I volunteered at el Centro de la Niña Trabajadora (the Center for the Working Girl), a nonprofit alternative school and workshop dedicated to helping working children of the market and their families to attain an education and have access to health, social, and psychological services.
I primarily worked in the administrative and volunteer offices, helping to search for grant opportunities and to update our presence on international volunteer sites and fundraising platforms, though I also spent some time helping disadvantaged students with their homework and volunteering on special projects to earn funds for the street outreach program. When I first told my host mom where I’d be interning, she strongly discouraged me from going to such a dangerous part of the city. However, I steeled myself to be vigilant but unafraid (though my walking pace betrayed my fear still), and was overwhelmingly rewarded with amazing life changing experiences and a host of new international, life long friendships.
                I saw a part of the country that many citizens and most tourists don’t want to see. I had the unique opportunity to juxtapose the economically privileged students of the private liberal arts university with the marginalized members of society whose economic needs forced their children into labor often before elementary education could be completed.

                I met incredible people from Ecuador and from all over the world who showed me the value of experiencing life outside one's comfort zone. Whether having to speak a new language, navigating to avoid being robbed at blade-point, eating lemon ants from a stick, dealing with the military near the Colombian border, jumping off a bridge, or hiking in the hail with new friends, I learned to trust myself and to be self-reliant. My semester abroad proved the value of an experiential education as I found opportunities to learn beyond the classroom. 

Saturday, September 21, 2013


"You will never be completely at home again, because part of your heart will always be somewhere else. That is the price you pay for the richness of loving and knowing people in more than one place." (Miriam Adeney)

My home is nowhere and everywhere. I've been back in the United States since May 27th, where I almost immediately went to Kansas to start my summer job, after which I drove across the country, stopping in Wisconsin, Indiana, and Virginia to visit family and friends on my way back to North Carolina to start my fourth and final year of undergrad. 

I've been in class now for five weeks, and I've spent a lot of time thinking back on my experience in Ecuador and everything that composed that semester. I constantly have times when something happens here, and it reminds me of something or someone. My dad requested/suggested a reflection on my time in Quito, so here goes.

My host family welcomed me into their home and made me feel comfortable. There were generational conflicts in how to raise a child and what values should be important, but their home was always available for me. True, I spent more nights at my friends' hostel near the end, in part to escape from the increase in familial tension, but that also showed me my own growing desire to have more freedoms from a structured setting. Returning to the dorms (specifically the freshman dorms) has been a difficult experience. Living in Quito at least offered the opportunity to see more of the city and at least watch and take in my surroundings on the way to classes or my internship, but being on campus in a small town makes me feel more and more trapped in this environment. 

As for the universidad, I loved my classes. My courses at USFQ allowed me to add a third major to my undergraduate degree (now Spanish, Nonprofit Leadership & Management, and International Relations). It was interesting to approach subjects from a non-United States perspective, allowing for different interpretations of events, policies, and concepts. At the same time, however, I was disappointed in how similar that university was to my home school. It was beautiful, but many of the students came from high-income families and acted rather similarly to those here, or the students from the United States stayed together, limiting the cultural experience and linguistic progress. I suppose I didn't really try as hard as I could have to reach out to new people, but I found my place at my internship.

My experience truly was made by the people I met at my internship. When I first got to CENIT, I was worried that I'd be an outsider there, too. Then I realized that everyone was an outsider who had to reach out and form relationships with the people there for support and friendship. I remember going to the good-bye party for a couple of volunteers near the end of January. I hardly knew them, yet everyone was extremely welcoming. I'm an incredibly timid person, and I don't even go out on campus, yet leaving my house to spend time in the city at night reminded me that I wouldn't learn anything new if I didn't try anything new. 

With that in mind, I started partaking in more of the CENIT events or event connected with CENIT people. For Carnaval, I spent four days in the Cuyabeno Reserve (and 16 hours on a cross-country bus ride), part of the Amazon rain forest, with three other ladies volunteering at CENIT. I started going to a local gym with another volunteer, and ended up going there two or three times each week for two and a half hours each time.  I went to the Valentine's Day Pub Quiz intra-agency fundraise to spend time with the new people I'd met. I went hiking that weekend with a group of five other volunteers, where we bonded as we hiked in the rain and eventually reached the summit only to have it hail. We went back to their hostel, huddled together in an attempt to stay warm, eventually stripping down to our skivvies and they had to lend my dry clothes for my ride back home. I started volunteering each Tuesday night at the Pub Quiz event held in the tourist district, which gave me the chance to spend time with volunteers. I saw more of the international students from USFQ at that event than I ever did on campus. They recognized me as well, and started to ask about what my connection with CENIT was, which gave me the opportunity to talk about the organization and about our goals. One student even came with me to CENIT to do an essay on a nonprofit organization in Quito.

The frequency and quality of my blog entries and Facebook posts illustrate my increased participation and engagement in where I was. My relationships with people grew, and I started to learn more about myself in the process. I'm far more capable of taking care of myself than I ever thought possible. As a person who was generally scared of anything going wrong, I was finally able to relax. Sure, I was still extremely vigilant and aware of my surroundings, but I could also take the bus on my own, or get in a good taxi and maintain my composure in times of discomfort (like when one taxi driver got lost because he didn't know where my address was, or when one asked me if I wanted cocaine and then asked if anyone was waiting for me where I was going, and then I couldn't find my hotel with the roads so I had to get dropped off in the plaza and walk back to where I was--don't worry, both of those times turned out just fine, though I was severely freaked out by that last one). I could go out to clubs with friends and just enjoy myself and my company, rather than stay in and worry about every last assignment.

In part because I knew the grades didn't transfer to affect my GPA and in part because I knew that the experiences were worth so much more than an assignment in the long run, I started to choose to spend more time with friends even if I knew if might put me behind in class. I neglected a significant part of the third segment of my politics class because I spent more time having dinner with friends and volunteering at the tutoring program for CENIT. Even knowing that my final exam in that class brought down my grade for the class overall, I wouldn't change it for anything. The time I spent with my friends in my last few weeks in Quito are some of my most treasured nights and weekends.

I generally realize (a little late, but eventually) that the quality and effort you put into given circumstances will have a significant impact on how powerful that experience is. My time in Quito was no exception. Once I learned to put aside my fears of failure and of letting someone down, I recognized my own potential and my own capabilities, which meant that I didn't let myself down either. I took chances, I made incredible leaps (figuratively and literally, if you recall that bridge...), I let go of the person I'd arbitrarily decided I had to be, in favor of the person I could be. 

Eventually I'll find a way to apply more of what I learned and share it with the people around me. For now, I'll start looking at postgrad fellowships and graduate programs that excite my soul. Hopefully I'll find something that inspires me, but I also know now that a lot of that inspiration has to come from within myself rather than from something or someone else. I'll fall in love with people and places anywhere, though I will also miss the incredible people whose presence made my experience that much more fulfilling.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Post Semester Trip

I know I've been in the States for 3.5 weeks now, but I've been moving nonstop and trying not to get too nostalgic for Ecuador quite yet, so I hadn't posted any of the photos from the end of the semester trip I took with my mom to the Galapagos Islands and then to Machu Picchu in Peru.

I don't know of any great stories right now, but I can explain any of the picture if you would like, and I'd be more than happy to share more when I have some down time! (here's the link to the photos on Facebook, with a bit more description)

It was wonderful to travel with my mom, challenging both of our Spanish skills yet finding our way. I was also able to bring her to CENIT for a visit, on the bus, showing her how I got there and how much it meant to me. We went out to dinner with my friends to say goodbye, after which the adventure with her was a great distraction. I do apologize for the lack of descriptions here, but so much is now just in verbal stories or specific anecdotes, and I cannot do it justice with a written description.

Here are a few photos with friends and family. (Adrian was having a rough day, but I've received word from Patricia that he still knocks on my door looking for me, and he asks where I am. Just thinking about that makes me tear up still.)

Ecuador: Galapagos Islands

Peru: Cusco and Machu Picchu