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Project Ecuador: Critical Reflections Portfolio

I took this photo on the plane departing from the US.

I had never been to South America and at the time of this photo, I thought that was the most pressing novelty I would encounter. I was consumed with thoughts of excitement about this new continent and this new country, what foods I would taste and architecture I would marvel at. I smiled as I remembered my favorite places in Europe and how I felt the first time I laid eyes on them.

Looking back on this photo, I find it deeply symbolic…

I left from Denver on Tuesday, December 2, 2009 and flew through Houston, Texas direct to Quito-the capitol of Ecuador. In Houston, I met up with most of my classmates, the program coordinator and the professor for the program, where we all flew to Quito together.

Project Ecuador is one of many International Service Learning programs that the University of Denver offers. For the past few years, my office, the Center for Multicultural Excellence (CME), has been working to incorporate international identity as more central to our model. Through this work, we have been partnering with the International House staff for trainings and programming efforts. Part of our conversations at CME have been about our staff getting more International Exposure as a way of expanding our self-awareness to then bring back to our program design, administration and training. In this effort, I participated in Project Ecuador as a professional (and personal) development venture.

And venture it was…

This (inevitably long) post will be focus on specific guided reflections as prescribed by the course syllabus. In these posts I hope to serve a number of goals: 1. to provide a critical reflection portfolio, 2. share an interactive format for my advocacy project, and 3. to utilize a medium that speaks to my ever evolving quest for self reflection and self expression.

Academic Study and Personal Interactions
How academic study and personal interactions led to an increase in knowledge about education in Ecuador and the United States…

After being in Ecuador for three weeks-both in the capitol, Quito and the rural areas of Borja and El Chaco-I am convinced that would have been no reading material that could have prepared me for the experiences I would have first hand. I new very little of the Ecuadorian educational systems prior to arriving in Quito. In fact, when I first became interested in the program, I had to Google map Ecuador to find it on the globe. I new it was in south of North America and I was pretty sure it was close to Central America.

I knew-or assumed-that it has an unstable economy and more poverty than wealth. But I also new that Al Roker has stood on the Equator line during one of the Today show Ends of the Earth specials against a picturesque backdrop of a multitude of colors and dimensions.

I too stood on the Equator line at the middle of the earth.

Project Ecuador is couched in a class titled, Education in American Democracies. The course description reads to present service opportunities in various schools in Ecuador and Denver as a way to compare, contrast and evaluate between the US and Ecuador. Upon arrival in the rural area, Borja and nearby El Chaco we made our way to Escuela Especiale, literally translated, Special School. We accomplished one of those three goals-we worked in the private high school, helping to teach English.

Academic Content
How academic content did and did not integrate with services experiences…

I have to admit that when I arrived to our service location in rural Borja and El Chaco, I was sure that I was not intended to be on this trip. That I was not the fit and in the wrong program. I am not a trained teacher for elementary or high school aged students. I am not a trained teacher of special needs students and have had very minimal interaction with students with severe mental and physical differences. I am not trained English teacher and I do not speak Spanish fluently, nor conversationally. It takes me a painfully long time to think of what I want to say…figure out how to simply it in vocabulary and form, then find Spanish work equivalents, rehearse it in my head a few times, then gain the muster and hopefully speed to string it together into a sentence. And, God forbid, someone ask me a question in return!

So, when we arrived at Escuela Espeicale, I was beyond taken aback. Before our arrival, I was painfully aware that I was out of my element and comfort zone being asked to work with children with special needs, in a different language, no less. But, to be honest, that was the very, very least of my worries…

Luckily, I was very sick the first (and what turned out to be my only) day of service at this school, which prevented me from literally smelling the unsanitary conditions. I have never worked in a school like this, never worked with children with special needs and never been in a school that lacked resources as severely as this one. I was not introduced to any academic content that would have prepared me for this kind of an encounter. I worry about how this experience was framed as “service” and what the vision or intention was or is for this encounter.

Multiple perspectives on educational practices and purposes…

The Denver based school volunteer oppotunity that was intented to take place prior to our trip to Ecuador did not come to fruition, due to more rigid restrictions.

Unfortunately, we discovered that Escuela Especiale was an unsanitary, unsafe environment without a formal (or informal) curriculum and we had to withdrawal our participation after the second day of service. We were told that the Director of the school and most of the teachers and students were away at the Speical Olympics events that week which might have affected the climate and structure of the school while we were intended to engage in service with them. Due to this change, we were only involved with one other school.

The school we spent most of our time at was the private high school in Borja. This school reminded me of my own parochial school upbringing-morning prayers as a whole community, single filed lines, uniforms, nuns in habit. It was all too familiar for me personally, having been a product of a mirror education, only in Phoenix, Arizona.

As far as perspectives of educational practices, I fear that the design of the program had us interact with presumably the best of the best (parochial school) and arguably the least resources and valued (Escuela Especiale) each in a specific rural area of Ecuador. I feel confident in saying that we did not experience much of a full or well rounded perspective. We did, however, experience contrast. Contrast from an educated, prepared, trained staff at the private school to an uneducated, un-credentialed staff at Escuela Especiale. But because of the lack of preparedness and the severity of the condition, only spend two days in this location.

Intercultural Understanding
How did your intercultural understanding and communication skills have been enhanced through Project Ecuador…

As I mentioned before, my Spanish language skills are not strong. Ironically, I studied Spanish from Kindergarten through my Senior year of high school. I have a grasp on the basics (some might argue with me here :) and was surprised with how much vocabulary came back to me as we navigated through the country. I was equally as surprised at how regardless of how much time I would spend rehearsing what and how I wanted to say something, when it was time to speak how it felt like all the words fell out of my head at the very moment I needed them.

Given some of our experiences, that I have mentioned, I think it would have been very easy to attribute our frusterations, shock, and even disgust to the Ecuadorian people, customs or values. I think this is one of the most alarming and very real possibilities of not being adequately prepared for such an “Intercultrual Encounter”. As a guest, not a missionary, philanthopist, or any other number of well-intented misnomers that I and we, as Americans bring with us a our cultural norm, the greatest miseducation is prescribing another culture’s “problems” or even their strengths or attributes through my own unexamined lens.

So, when it comes to intercultural understanding and language, the possibility for misunderstanding is real and palpable…and inevitable. I think the only remedy is preparation, perspective, knowledge, skills and endless reflection and facilitated dialogue. The understading I gained or the misunderstanding I have the opportunity to unravel will be an endless journey…a journey that I welcome. And if I am lucky I will be able to continue having more “intercultural encounters”.

Next Steps
What next steps do you see for yourself…

Share, learn, grow…repeat.

First, I want to share all the photos I took during the three weeks I was in Ecuador. Be warned: There are a LOT of photos and short videos. To look through them, please visit my MobileMe Galleries: the first set and the second set.

I would like to see more International Learning opportunities specificaly designed for graduate students across all disciplines. While this course was specific and primarily focused on 1. English as a second language and 2. Special Education, I would advocate for courses that can engage and highlight multiple discplines and interest levels.