Mountain views. City lights. Sunny days.
Crowded streets and packed buses. The smell of baking bread, warm and fresh from the oven. Flowers and gum and newspapers being sold on the sides of streets.
Last year, for J-Term 2015, one of the J-Term groups came from Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Nine students packed their bags and traveled to Quito, Ecuador, for a Spanish literature and culture course (SPA-334). They stayed in Quito for two and a half weeks, living in host families and experiencing a piece of what Ecuador has to offer.
“The purpose of the trip was to help students make connections with what they’re learning here in the classroom,” said Professor Emily Gratson, faculty leader of the J-term trip. “Once the students experience it personally, it comes alive in a whole new way.”
If you fall in love with the culture and the people, everything else – language proficiency, cultural competency – just comes with it, Gratson said.
The classroom time
The main question the class looked at during the trip was what makes Ecuador unique, what is the Ecuadorian identity.
“We tried to be very intentional with what we were reading and the experiences they had,” Gratson said. That is one reason students stayed in homestays for the majority of their time there.
“It was a continual learning experience,” she said. Students learned as much if not more outside of class, allowing class time to provide a space to talk about and process what they were experiencing.
Homestays were aimed to give students an authentic experience, to try to move past being a tourist to actually being a part of an Ecuadorian family and experience normal Ecuadorian life.
Julia Krisch, junior, and sophomore Jordan Van Dyke stayed together in the same host family while in Quito.
“We stayed with a mom and her 15-year-old son,” Krisch said. “It was such a cool experience to really get in the culture and live daily life with someone with a culture completely different than yours."
“Just getting to see the hospitality and the love they have for other people, and how much they want to share with you was amazing,” she said.
“That was was where a lot of learning took place,” Van Dyke said about the homestays. “We would have discussions about politics, or religion, or anything else and just learn how they lived their life.” They were able to learn how to cook different traditional dishes, as well.
“Seeing their hospitality for people has made me want to be more like that,” Van Dyke said. “Seeing Elsa open up her home to us was an example of how Jesus opens up His arms to us even though we’re strangers.”
Students learned how to navigate the city of Quito, and commuted to class each day from their host families using public transportation. Over the course of the couple of weeks there, students grew to become much more comfortable traveling on their own and living life as a citizen of Quito would.
Personal interest projects
Students also worked on a personal interest project, where they were able to research and study a certain profession while in Quito. They were able to interview business people, or artists, or teachers, or others.
“The purpose of the side projects was to get the students into the community,” Gratson said. It was an opportunity to be intentional in an area of interest to you and complete a project that students can use in their future, both for their careers and personal lives.
Some students compared and contrasted differences between businesses in the U.S. and in Quito, for instance. Others focused on a certain aspect of the educational systems.
“I take it as a good sign when students don’t want to go home,” Gratson said.
“The goal was accomplished; those connections were made. They fell in love with the people and culture there.”
The memories could go on and on – from all of the adventures in Quito, to the couple of excursions elsewhere in Ecuador, including zip lining in the jungle, climbing the snow-capped volcano called Cotopaxi, and shopping in the traditional market of Otavalo.
“Ecuador inspired me to continue to learn Spanish, because I really want to be able to communicate and get to know people I wouldn’t otherwise be able to, if I didn’t know another language,” Krisch said.
“All of the study abroad trips can be a transformative
experience," Gratson said.