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Students have life-changing experience in Ecuador

Barry McNamara
01/22/2018
During their 10-day trip to Ecuador, the Monmouth group enjoyed a trip to the Equator.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – While making an effort to help a local organization that changes the lives of young children in Ecuador, a group of Monmouth College students and faculty had a life-changing experience of its own.

Seven students and two faculty members took part in a 10-day project in the South American country during the College’s winter break that included working with children at some of the many farmers’ markets in the capital city of Quito.

The Monmouth group was accompanied in Quito by staff members from United to Benefit Ecuadorian Children, International. UBECI is an organization that provides educational resources to market children, with a goal of getting them into school when they’re of age.

“The farmers markets go from about 4 a.m. until 6 p.m., and the kids play and sleep at their booths,” said Assistant Professor of Educational Studies Michelle Holschuh Simmons, who led the trip, along with Assistant Professor of Anthropology Megan Hinrichsen. Both professors led a similar trip to Ecuador last year.

Two representatives from UBECI were the regular teachers. The visiting volunteers, such as Monmouth’s group, serve as what Simmons called “teaching assistants.”

“A typical day would be to go to a market in the morning, engage the kids for two and a half hours, break away for lunch, and then have another two and a half-hour session in the afternoon, either at the same market or at a new one,” said Simmons. “This year’s theme is hygiene. We’d play games related to that, including one where paint was used to replicate germs, and the children could see the way germs spread. It was kind of like ‘tag.’”

They also sang songs with students, used learning toys such as puzzles and Legos, and played soccer.

“We simply had fun with them,” said Simmons. “They were very open to just coming up to us and sitting on our laps.”

It was not only the Ecuadorian children who were positively influenced.

“My time in Ecuador was nothing short of a life-changing experience,” said Chelsea Schupp ’18 of Schaumburg, Ill. “I didn’t know what to expect since I had never participated in a volunteer service trip, but it was full of pleasant surprises. ... I discovered that despite your background, your circumstances, or what society may say about you, you are worthy. Something magical happened to me after making those kids smile, and I can’t wait to bring that feeling with me into the real world once I graduate in May.”

To prepare for the trip, the Monmouth students read a book assigned by Hinrichsen – Begging as a Path to Progress: Indigenous Women and Children and the Struggle for Ecuador’s Urban Spaces by Kate Swanson. They also read shorter texts assigned by Simmons, including a chapter from Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which she said helped the group examine “the structural barriers to education that exist for the people of Quito as well as for people here in our own community.”

On the trip home, the group had a long layover in Houston, which they used for an extra class session.

“We first asked them to do some writing about the differences between what they read in preparation for the trip and what they saw,” said Simmons. “Then they talked about what they wrote, and there was a time for group discussion after each student spoke. ... The students really understand the complexities of access to education, and they know it’s not just a problem in Ecuador – it’s here, too. This trip gave them a new view of those problems.”

Hinrichsen said the experience also underscored the value of study abroad.

“I think study abroad, whether it’s a year, a month, or a week, is an important experience for students of all backgrounds,” she said. “Off-campus study allows students to see and experience the local contexts we learn about in class. Reading about social issues is important, but off-campus experiences also teach an important lesson that the people they read about in articles and books are all real people who live real and complex lives. People are not just the issues they face.”

Although this was Hinrichsen’s second trip to Ecuador with Monmouth students, she has traveled there many times.

“I’ve worked in Ecuador since 2011,” she said. “If you ask a student who’s taken any of my classes, they’ll be able to tell you that I mention Ecuador quite a bit. It’s a great opportunity for me to introduce students to a place I know so well and care so much about. I hope that they leave Ecuador with a similar feeling and a greater desire to travel to learn about the world in general.”

Hinrichsen is working on a book about her research in Ecuador and plans to return there this summer to complete more research. A medical anthropologist – and a member of the College’s Global Food Security Triad faculty – she’s been studying health and well-being with a focus on nutrition and food security.