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How to describe ten months? July 2, 2012

Posted by Georgia Ennis in Ecuador, Fulbright.
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Georgia Ennis

As I near the end of my grant, I often think I have gained more from my ten months in Ecuador than I have been able to give. One of the primary goals of the Fulbright program is intercultural exchange in order to promote mutual understanding. This idea is highlighted throughout the application process, and even more so during program orientation in the U.S. and in the destination country. At the beginning of my grant, I thought frequently of what I was there to give, but at the end it is much harder to measure the effect I have had on my co-workers, students, friends, and acquaintances—have I changed, even slightly, how people think about the United States? Have I represented my program and myself well? Has this time made some sort of difference? I hope so, but I can’t be sure.

What I can be sure of is how I have been shaped and changed by this experience. It has not always been easy, and as a result I have grown more flexible, independent, and patient. As discussed in a previous post, I did not anticipate how difficult it would be to organize my work as an English Teaching Assistant—I thought I would arrive to a set work schedule, a group of teachers who wanted to work with me, and a supportive university community. Rather, I found I was responsible for making my own schedule, attempting to coordinate with teachers and navigating a complicated bureaucratic system. The first few months I was here, I was frequently depressed; I felt ineffectual and like I was doing little of importance. But this was how I learned greater flexibility, patience, and—to a certain extent—independence. I saw that I had to take the initiative for myself, and also accept that things are done very differently in academia than what I am accustomed to. Even though I felt quite lonely at the beginning, I became more independent as I grew comfortable living alone for the first time in my life, in a new place, where I had few friends.

Like many people from my personal and educational background, I have always thought of myself as a generally open and tolerant person. However, this experience has  exposed to me both my underlying prejudices and cultural assumptions, while  also helping me to become more accepting. Although I had visited Ecuador before, and thus thought I was prepared for culture shock, I really wasn’t. Some of the smallest (and most cliché) things were often the most trying—primarily, our different relationships to time and different conceptions of personal space. As the first few months went by, I frequently found myself deeply annoyed that buses wait in the market until they are full, that meetings don’t convene until all participants are present, and that people touch me so often. After ten months here I have learned not only to appreciate living in a people-, rather than time-, oriented culture, but also to orient myself towards other people’s needs instead of a rigid schedule. I like hugging and kissing my friends each time I see them, and I anticipate scaring my friends in the U.S. when I greet them as if we haven’t seen each other for years.

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I have also had some of the most amazing experiences of my life here. I have camped at 14,000 feet and woken up to snow on the equator. I have seen the Milky Way in startling clarity while in the Amazon Rainforest, and looked at the Southern Cross and the Big Dipper in the same sky. I have been cleansed by shamans. I have danced at weddings and walked in funeral processions. I have learned a little bit of Quichua. I have swum in the ocean and watched plankton light up around my hands. I have walked colonial streets, visited Incan ruins, eaten guinea pig, and climbed mountains. I have watched my students develop as English speakers. I have made friends. I have made a life for myself in another hemisphere. I don’t know if I have changed anything. But even if I didn’t, and no matter how hard some of it was, I wouldn’t trade the last ten months for anything.

(Educational) Culture Shock April 19, 2012

Posted by Georgia Ennis in Ecuador, Fulbright.
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Georgia Ennis

I am living and teaching English in Ecuador during a time of political and cultural shift, especially at the academic level. The current president, Rafael Correa, fully embraces a discourse of development, and is focusing on education and educational reform as one the principal paths to modernization. To achieve this, the government is implementing large, and often unpopular, changes. Recently, all of the universities in the country were ranked A through E, and a few days ago half of those that received a failing grade (E) were closed, it appears, without warning. All university professors are expected to obtain a PhD. As public universities are free and frequently overburdened, aptitude tests are going to be introduced to measure prospective students abilities prior to admission. Although these measures do not seem unreasonable from a U.S. perspective, they are a radical shift from the dominant educational culture.

During the rankings, my host institution, la Universidad Técnica del Norte, received a B, and last year achieved national accreditation. Moreover, the administration of my school strongly supports President Correa (so much so, that a few weeks ago all students, teachers, and staff were required to travel to the capital for a pro-government demonstration). Although I am at arguably one of the “best” public universities in Ecuador, I frequently found myself shocked and frustrated at the beginning of my grant by many aspects of the educational system.

Part of campus and Ibarra’s misty hills

I expected as a Fulbright teaching assistant that my work duties would be arranged for me, but I found that I was responsible for organizing in what ways, when, and how I wanted to work. The first few months of my grant were often overwhelming and frustrating as I attempted to navigate an unfamiliar academic environment, starting first a number of optional conversational clubs (which few to no students attended), and later attempting to work with professors who rarely gave me any guidance on what they wanted me to do or who frequently cancelled our sessions.

I have also had to adjust to a lot as a coworker, teacher, and cultural outsider. Racism and sexism are major problems within the school environment (as in Ecuador in general), and I have often found myself explaining why certain statements are offensive to me. I have also had to redefine my expectations for my students. I arrived with big dreams for what I would teach them, but encountered a pedagogical environment that largely involves teaching solely from the textbook. Coming from an educational background that emphasized reading and writing, I was dismayed to find students complaining about writing ten sentences for homework, and who frequently come to class without completing the few pages of reading asked of them. I have thus adjusted how I work, and now focus on self-contained listening and speaking activities in the classrooms where I assistant teach each week.

Despite these problems, there are several positive aspects to my work as an English teaching assistant. I have met many wonderful, motivated students, and I have been rewarded by seeing their speaking abilities and listening comprehension improve. I have also had the opportunity to work with and learn from a number of dedicated, talented teachers. I have made friends. I think I have represented my cultural background and myself well. And I have learned a lot about myself as a teacher and my own expectations of education, as well as the flaws in the educational systems of both the U.S. and Ecuador.

A typical classroom at UTN, with Professor Selene de Vaca


You can read more about “garage universities” and educational reform in Ecuador in this recent NY Times article.