I recently spent six months as a program coordinator for the Arajuno Road Project in Puyo, Ecuador. This nonprofit organization provides English language education and community development support to several rural primary schools outside of the Ecuadorian Amazon.
This experience was incredible for a number of reasons. A month before traveling to Ecuador, I completed my master’s degree in International Communication with a focus on education, and even more specifically, in Latin America. After three years working and studying at the School of International Service in Washington, D.C., I was ready for a challenge and to spend some time working in the field I had studied so thoroughly.
The Arajuno Road Project is a small organization. The director, a former Peace Corps Volunteer, and her husband, an Ecuadorian, run the operation themselves. All other employees are volunteers. While I was there, an advisory board was developed to provide some oversight and other resources. The limited size meant that I was tasked with a numerous roles and given a level of responsibility that I likely would not have seen in another organization. I taught English in two schools, Escuela Simon Bolivar and Escuela General Eplicachma in Esfuerzo I.
Some highlights of this work included an international art exchange and creating a bilingual cafeteria. My students in both schools completed drawings of their communities, school, or families to send abroad as part of a K-12 international art exchange arranged by OneWorld Classrooms, based out of Massachusetts.
We received art from around the world, including Burkina Faso, China, Poland, the Dominican Republic, Thailand, the Philippines, and the United States. It was incredible to share these glimpses into other lives around the world with my students. They were so curious about the art from other children and so proud of sharing their own.
At the school in Esfuerzo I, we also made signs for common food items in Ecuador and wrote the words in English and Spanish. By adding in a few relevant verbs and other words, we created an interactive English exercise that students could participate in every day at lunch, even on days when English could not be offered during class time. Students were able to move the words around to create simple English sentences.
Given that much of the Ecuadorian education system is based on rote memorization or completing exercises in a workbook, this participatory method seemed to be very exciting for them. I was so happy to see how engaged they were in this activity.
I really enjoyed getting to know these students and their families. I built especially strong relationships with the school directors at each of these schools, and was touched to see them at my farewell party. One school had an elaborate farewell ceremony for me, presenting me with a dramatic reading of an original poem and many handmade gifts.
In addition to teaching English and serving as the liaison between the organization and these schools, I coordinated the volunteers that came in and out of the project. I conducted orientations and assisted them in their cultural transition to Ecuador. I also trained them in working in the classrooms.
Many of the volunteers were young adults from Europe or the United States, though they ranged in age from 16 to 45. In some cases, this was their first time abroad, while others travelled a lot and were well equipped to deal with cultural differences. For these reasons, it was somewhat difficult to design a universal orientation that would accommodate all of these varying needs. This is just one of the aspects of my experience in Ecuador that required me to continually adapt and change with the circumstances as opportunities or challenges arose.
I think that this experience, supported by the Christianson Grant and the InterExchange Foundation, helped me develop further international understanding by forcing me to confront some of the difficult paradoxes of volunteering abroad. In the future, I hope to continue working to develop and implement programs that provide meaningful interactions between those of different cultures abroad.
My previous experiences overseas had all been part of semesters studying abroad in college and while these were undoubtedly important for me, I recognized that I did not always engage in my host culture as fully as I could have. During these semesters, many of my friends were other American students like me. This was a helpful, even necessary, community for supporting each other through culture shock, but I wonder now if I could have built stronger relationships with my colleagues and other students from the host country.
I hoped that by working for an organization that approaches international exchange through volunteering instead of studying, I might find that people are more inclined to engage with the host culture in an authentic way. However, I think that what is tricky about this relationship is that the expectations are so completely different.
I began to think a lot about gratitude. The volunteers often expected to be recognized more for their efforts. They wanted to know why the community wasn’t thanking them as much as they had expected. But these volunteers were learning a lot from the experience, as well. Most of them had never taught before or didn’t speak Spanish when they arrived. I tried to convey the idea that the gratitude might need to go both ways. Of course the Ecuadorians were grateful for our support and our time, but the volunteers could also be grateful for the opportunity to be welcomed into their communities, and for the patience that they showed us as we learned how to be better teachers.
I also learned the importance that a sense of humor can have in relating to others, even across cultures. I had many, many awkward moments as I revived my Spanish skills in Puyo. Misunderstandings were frequent. But I found that recounting these embarrassing moments to my Ecuadorian friends or school directors made me more relatable and allowed us to connect on a more personal level.