Student Blogger

How to return from a study abroad semester in Ecuador.

A mini-reunion of Hecua Ecuador students– In St. Paul, MN!

We were lucky enough to have three student bloggers from the Community Internships in Latin America program in Ecuador in Spring of 2017. This week, Maya Swope, a Macalester College student majoring in Environmental Studies and Geography returns to the blog for her post-program analysis. Read Maya’s previous post about her internship experience here. To learn more about the Community Internships in Latin America program, click here.

A line of students hikes across the spine of a mountain.

Hiking the Pasochoa volcano just outside of Quito

It has been more than three months since I returned from my semester in Ecuador– enough time to start to look back and reflect on it as something in my past while still remembering most of the details of the experience. I continue to be both amazed at how easy it is to slip back into my American life, and conscious of the ways that this experience has affected my views and desires. As my friends here will attest, I still start far too many of my sentences with “well, when I was in Ecuador…”

Many people I know who recently spent time abroad say that they were utterly transformed, drastically and permanently changed by living and learning in a new country. This dramatic language describes neither my experience nor the way I see the world–my life hasn’t been turned on its head, and my daily interactions remain more or less the same. But that is not to say that I didn’t find the experience meaningful, educational, and valuable (I did). My understandings of a lot of topics are deeper, and more nuanced. I know myself a little better. My vision of what the world looks like– how it dresses, acts, sounds, etc– is a bit broader than before.

As my experiences and memories from Ecuador continue to fade, there are a few experiences and reflections that especially stand out:

1) Looking at the US from the outside

Being abroad this past semester gave me a chance to look at the US from the outside in. I’d often watch the news on TV with my host parents, which allowed me to to hear about the early Trump presidency from the perspective of the Ecuadorian media and government, and to listen to my host family comment on American politics. I also had a few different conversations with people about immigrating to the US. Some people dreamed of going there to work or study, and wanted to hear details about what it was like there. Others said that they never wanted to go there and figured that Ecuador would treat them much better. I felt like I left with a better understanding of the ways that many Ecuadorians see the US and its role in the region and world.

After being back for a few months, it is clear to me that the US is not the same place as when I left. In my ideas about what it meant to study away, I never considered the extent to which I’d notice my country changing, as I watched. Much of the hatred and bigotry that already existed has been given a (more) mainstream political platform. Relationships with countries around the world have changed as a result of the current administration. I found it simultaneously refreshing to be able to look at American politics from a different lens, and aggravating to feel far away and unable to attend protests and other demonstrations.

2) Politics/ Environmental Activism

This semester I was fortunate enough to meet with a ton of people who have devoted their lives to social and/or environmental justice in Ecuador. These leaders helped me to learn a lot about the different issues that Ecuadorians face— especially issues of race and gender very similar to those in the US. At a time when I was feeling particularly fed up with the top leaders of both the American and Ecuadorian governments, I found learning about the dedication, successes, and lessons from these activists to be particularly inspiring and reassuring.

One of my favorite moments of the semester was when I got to interview Luis Yanza, an important activist who has spent the last 20+ years fighting to get the Chevron/Texaco oil company to pay for the oil they spilled and the damages they created in the Ecuadorian amazon and for the people who live there. From rural amazonian communities to federal courtrooms in New York, he has organized and argued for justice. I was amazed that this international environmental award winner would take the time to meet with me! After our conversation just outside the federal Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in Quito, I remember feeling both an especially deep appreciation for this opportunity and also a sort of guilt that I could give him nothing but another opportunity to share his work. I would never get a meeting with a US activist of such importance, and I think an Ecuadorian student would similarly not be able to meet with Yanza in Quito– my privilege as a white, foreign student afforded me this unique experience.

Yanza gave me a signed copy of his book, “UDAPT vs Chevron- Texaco, Voices of the Victims.”

3) Spanish

Living in Ecuador was my first time so fully immersed in a Spanish-speaking environment, and I loved it! It was the best kind of challenge: I could notice myself improving a lot, and at the same time, there was always so much more to learn. I know that my Spanish will continue to fade the longer that I am speaking/ thinking only in English, but I hope that the confidence that I gained in my language skills will stick with me. A few days ago, I Whatsapp messaged my Ecuadorian host family to say hi and see how they were doing. I was surprised at how much I had to think about each message, but a bit relieved that by the end of our short texting conversation my messages came out smoother and easier.
When I imagined my return to the US, I thought of how sad I would be to not be surrounded by so much Spanish– in my daily life here, most everyone speaks English most of the time. But from the very moment I landed in the Miami airport, I was reminded that the US is also a country full of spanish-speakers, that I was incredibly privileged to have learned Spanish out of interest (and not necessity), and that political boundaries don’t necessarily dictate the languages we speak.

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