Welcome to HECUA’s Alumni Profile series. Periodically, we catch up with a HECUA alum and see how their time in a HECUA classroom influenced their career goals, their life in the community, or their pursuit of continued education.
This month we are delighted to feature Ben Kromash, who studied with HECUA’s Community Internships in Latin America program in 2015. Ben is a graduate of Macalester College and recently completed a term of service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. Read his reflection on what it was like to visit the HECUA community in Quito five years after studying abroad.
I walk through the door and I am greeted with a warm hug and the smell of delicious Ecuadorian food on the stovetop. I’m immediately instructed to sit down and share all of the stories of travels and adventures. It has been 5 years since I have been in my host mom’s house, so we have a lot to catch up on.
With flavorful Andean soup wafting steam in our faces, we swap stories. I share about the flamingos in the Atacama Desert of Chile and she tells me that her oldest son is expecting a child. I tell her about the glaciers in Patagonia and she tells me all about the famous Ecuadorian Ambato bread that is made with pig fat. We spoon ají -a homemade spicy sauce- onto our food and laugh about old memories.
I studied abroad in Quito, Ecuador in 2015. My experience with HECUA influenced my academic studies and my career ambitions. HECUA’s courses, combined with my internship at an organic urban farm, shaped my values and helped inform my ever expanding international perspective. Since my study abroad experience, I have completed my service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. Both of these chapters taught me the joys and immense challenges of development work.
Visiting Quito brought back many fond memories, but also gave me a chance to reflect on how much we’ve both changed. In 2015, my classmates and I fumbled with taxis and buses, while I had a hazy vision of my future. Now, my host mom taps her phone to Uber to the grocery store and I’ve been accepted to graduate school. Just 5 years ago, people only biked on weekends in Quito and I was developing a basic understanding of gender/sexuality. Now, Quito has a popular bike-share program and I’ve taught sex education. In 2015, I could barely say 10 words in Spanish. In 2020, someone asked if I was Ecuadorian, after conversing with me. Witnessing this progress was inspiring and a positive reminder of how growth can take place on personal and societal scales.
One of the highlights of my visit was talking to the newest group of HECUA students. I had the privilege of sharing about my experience and how much I enjoyed my time in Quito. I expressed gratitude for how much I learned, both in the courses and outside of the classroom. The experiential learning model that HECUA applies has informed my own methods as an educator. I remember walking through the Amazon jungle and learning about the biodiversity, indigenous communities and environmental degradation (during the program). I applied similar interactive methods as a science teacher during my time as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Paraguay. I told the students how my semester in HECUA has influenced my career trajectory and boosted my resumé. I also shared what some of my classmates are up to 5 years later: some of us are teachers, in medical school, working at the CDC, and working at other nonprofits, to name a few.
A truly special moment was when I visited the organic farm I interned at: La Granja Pachamama. The five women whom I worked with are still there and I received a very warm welcome. We prepared their signature handmade pasta together, caught each other up on the gossip, and cooked a delicious lunch -with ingredients from the farm of course! Hearing about their families and seeing the growth of the farm was so beautiful. They have expanded their production and have even added an aquaculture system to sell tilapia.
Through my travels in South America so far, I’ve visited 9 countries and hiked over 250 miles. I’ve experienced truly awesome places but sitting in my host mom’s kitchen emoted comfort, warmth and belonging that I have not felt in some time. I am truly grateful for my time as a student in HECUA and that I had the opportunity to visit again.