ETA Spotlight: Rebecca Thomas, Ecuador

Every month, Fulbridge interviews a Fulbrighter to get a glimpse of what life is like in different placements. This instalment features Rebecca Thomas, a 2017-2018 ETA in Ecuador. Lisa Gagnon, a 2017-2018 ETA in Latvia, edited the interview (conducted during Rebecca’s grant) for length and clarity.

  1. Why Ecuador?

I spent a year in Paraguay as an exchange student when I was in high school. I have kept in touch with my host family and friends there, and I try to visit every few years. I would have loved to go back on an ETA grant, but at this time Fulbright does not have an ETA program in Paraguay. I considered applying to a country in a completely different part of the world, like Indonesia or Thailand. Yet I was also interested in practicing and improving my Spanish, and I knew that my previous experience in Paraguay would make it easier for me to adjust to life in another Latin American country. At the same time, I knew that there would be differences as well, which would present new learning opportunities.

Ecuador appealed to me in particular because of its biological and cultural diversity. I had visited Ecuador briefly in 2005 as part of a Latin American tour with the Long Island Youth Orchestra. I have a memory of looking out the window of the plane as we approached Quito and being struck by the beauty of this unique city nestled in the Andes. The mountains are truly breathtaking, and the mix of indigenous and European cultures intrigued me. We visited six countries on that trip and only spent a few days in Ecuador, but it stood out in my mind even after so many years.

  1. How is Ecuador different from the U.S.?  

Rebecca with años viejos, wigs, and other items on sale on New Year’s Eve Photo by Bertha.

The climate and geography are very different from what I’m used to in New England, as well as the language and food. The standard size of paper is different, so if you try to use a folder that you brought from the U.S. the paper will stick out a bit at the top. In my placement city of Loja, you can’t necessarily count on a hot shower, and toilet paper goes in a waste bin instead of in the toilet. As a vegetarian, I have noticed that vegetarianism is not common here, and people don’t necessarily understand why anyone would choose to not eat meat in the first place.

The public university where I am working here in Ecuador, the Universidad Nacional de Loja, has fewer resources and less access to technology than schools I have encountered in the U.S. For example, the erasers in all the classrooms are tied to the whiteboards with string so they won’t get stolen or lost. The eraser from one room was stolen a couple weeks ago and has not been replaced, so I have had to erase the board with paper napkins. If I want to make photocopies for the students, I have to go to a copy shop off campus and either pay for the copies myself or collect a few cents from each student to cover the cost.

There are also more “invisible” cultural differences. Ecuadoreans often arrive “late” by U.S. standards, and plans tend to be more flexible. Maybe you had talked with a friend about going out on a certain day, but the plan falls through. On the other hand, some of your host family’s relatives might drop by for a visit unexpectedly, and before you know it night has fallen and you haven’t done any of what you had planned to do that day. These kinds of differences can be difficult to understand and adjust to, and I think everyone experiences some degree of culture shock, even if they have lived abroad before. However, this is also what makes it such a unique opportunity to learn and grow, because it opens your mind to different ways of thinking.

  1. What does a typical weekday look like for you?

Fulbright U.S. Students Orientation in Quito – Day trip to Termas de Papallacta. Photo by Kimberly Sam.

I live with a host family, so I have breakfast at home before catching a bus to the university.  I arrive at 8:00 or 9:00am, depending on the day. In the morning, I spend two or three hours assisting different professors in their classes. My placement is in the Carrera de Idioma Inglés at the Universidad Nacional de Loja, which trains students to be English teachers. I work with seven professors and have one or two hours of classes with each professor every week. Sometimes I just show up to class and help by modelling pronunciation, reading aloud, answering questions, or giving feedback. Other times professors ask me to prepare certain activities. Some of the professors actually have me lead the class for the hour(s) that I am there. The classes that I help with focus on speaking and listening, reading and writing, or phonetics (speech sounds) and phonology (relationships between speech sounds). It’s always gratifying when I can see that my students are truly interested in something, whether they’re enjoying a game that we’re playing in class or even asking a question that may be a little off topic but they really want to know the answer.

Most days I have enough free time in the middle of the day to go home for a bit. I work on lesson plans or homework for my language class, rest, or run small errands, and I have lunch at a restaurant near my house before taking the bus back to the university, where I work from 2:00 to 4:00pm. Three days of the week this time is spent leading speaking and writing practice sessions with students, which I plan and lead on my own. On the other days I am scheduled to help specific professors by reviewing students’ written assignments for grammar and spelling mistakes or doing other tasks such as preparing materials. If I have time in the evenings, I like to go for a walk in the park across from my house. I have dinner at home, and sometimes I will accompany my host mother on different errands or outings.

  1. How do you connect with your community outside of your formal responsibilities?

I have been taking a Kichwa (Ecuadorean language also known as Quechua) class at the university where I am working as an ETA. It is part of the coursework for the students in the Basic Education program, and I join them just for that class once a week in the afternoon. I have also been completing the online homework assignments for the course in the evenings.

In addition, I have been playing my oboe with the Orquesta Filarmónica de Loja, an orchestra that is also based at the university (although some of the musicians are high school students, students at a different university, or community members). Many weekdays we have rehearsals from 7:00-9:00pm. So far I have participated in one small performance at an event here in Loja as well as a concert in the city of Piñas. Piñas is a few hours away from Loja, so we traveled there by bus and spent the night in a hotel. It was interesting to see a different place, and I was able to get to know some of my fellow orchestra members better.

Although I am generally a shy and quiet person, I try to take advantage of any opportunities to get out of the house and spend time with Ecuadorians, whether at a bar or discoteca, the movie theater, a soccer tournament at the high school where my host mother works, or a concert or other cultural event. Often I don’t know everyone in the group, and sometimes I don’t end up talking much. Usually any invitation from a trusted person, however, is a chance to experience Ecuadorian social life, potentially have fun and make new friends, or at the very least not be sitting in my room feeling homesick! I enjoyed learning to dance while in Paraguay, and I try to take advantage of every opportunity to dance here in Ecuador.

  1. What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered as an ETA?

From my own experience and talking to previous ETAs, receiving departure and placement information at the last minute is typical for the Fulbright program in Ecuador. I did not get a confirmed departure date and flight information until the last week of September, and I received arrival and placement information just four days before leaving for Ecuador on October 9. Luckily, my employer was flexible about scheduling my last day of work, but it was very stressful to prepare to leave the country without knowing exactly when or where I was going. I also couldn’t do much packing until I got my placement information, because the climate is very different in different parts of the country and I wasn’t sure what kind of clothing I would need.

Once in country, I had two orientations in the capital city of Quito, where I got to know the other ETAs, Fulbrighters on other types of grants, and some Ecuadorians who will be going to the United States on Fulbright grants next year. My placement city is in the southern city of Loja, however, so at the beginning, I felt isolated from the Fulbright community and frustrated that I couldn’t participate in all the concerts and outings. Now that I have been in Loja for a few months I am starting to make more friends and feel more connected to the community, but it does take some time, and I think we all struggled with this to some degree regardless of where we were placed.

Potluck Thanksgiving dinner with U.S. and Ecuadorian Fulbrighters in Quito. Photo by Julieta Juncosa.

At the university, sometimes I show up and find out that there is no class because all the students are going to a meeting, or because the professor canceled class at the last minute. Sometimes I am not able to prepare as much as I would like because I don’t have the textbook or I didn’t get a chance to talk with the professor. This can be a little frustrating, but having spent a year in Latin America previously made it easier to adjust. I generally like to have things well organized, with every detail planned in advance and no last-minute surprises, but while I am here I need to be more flexible and just go with the flow sometimes.

The most extreme example of this was a strike at the university. Students had been organizing protests since the beginning of the semester, and one morning my tutor called me as I was getting ready and told me not to come in. The students had occupied our faculty (department) and barricaded the entrances with desks and chairs. For a while I would wonder every day whether I would be working or not. If the university didn’t reopen, would Fulbright send me to a different school or city? Would I have to start all over again learning my way around and making friends? In the end it was a total of about four weeks that I wasn’t working at the university, including the holidays. It felt like a really long time, especially without language classes or orchestra rehearsals during the holiday break.

  1. What are some of the highlights?

I am still amazed by the beauty of the Andes mountains, which always look a little different as the weather changes or the sun moves in the sky. Whether I’m landing at the airport in Quito or Loja, riding in a bus or car, or just looking down the street in the middle of the city, there are gorgeous views everywhere.

It was hard to be away from my family during the holidays, but it’s also interesting to experience holiday traditions in Ecuador. In November, Loja had its second Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas, an arts festival that lasted for a week and a half with events happening all over the city. It was fun to watch free concerts and plays in the plazas and admire the chalk art in the streets. I also enjoyed celebrating Thanksgiving in Quito, first at a formal lunch organized by Fulbright and then at an informal potluck with American and Ecuadorian friends. On New Year’s Eve, my host brother dressed up as a viuda (widow) and danced in the streets to get money from passing drivers and at midnight we burned an effigy called an año viejo and jumped over it twelve times for good luck.

I am extremely grateful to all of the Ecuadorians who have helped me to feel safe and welcome in an unfamiliar place. So many people have gone out of their way to make sure that I always have something vegetarian to eat, teach me how to ride the bus around the city, call me when I’m traveling to make sure everything is okay, get up at 5:00am to pick me up at the bus station in Quito, or include me in their family’s holiday celebrations.

  1. Why should prospective grantees apply to work in Ecuador?

Rebecca at the Loja sign outside Teatro Bolívar during the Festival Internacional de Artes Vivas Loja 2017. Photo by Bertha

As I mentioned, Ecuador is very diverse, both culturally and geographically. For example, Catamayo is only about an hour’s drive from Loja, but the climate is completely different, much hotter and drier. And that is just within the sierra region; the coastal region and the Amazon are quite different as well (not to mention the Galapagos Islands). So within this relatively small country there is so much to see.

Every ETA placement is different, but in my case my role is definitely that of a teaching assistant. So it’s a good fit for someone who maybe has a little bit of teaching or tutoring experience but doesn’t necessarily feel ready to take on full responsibility for teaching classes, especially in an unfamiliar culture and educational system. My teaching assistant duties are limited to 20 hours per week, so that leaves time for other activities like studying Kichwa and rehearsing with the orchestra.

  1. How have your experiences in Ecuador changed you?

I will probably have a better perspective on this after I return to the U.S., or even years later. But for now I can say that I definitely need to be more flexible here in Ecuador, both in terms of home life and social plans and in my work at the university. I have to accept that there are certain things I cannot control (or even know in advance) and try not to worry about them too much. I also appreciate the value that Ecuadorians tend to place on people, relationships, and spending time together. I think there is a lot of pressure in the U.S. to always be efficient and productive, and that can distract us from what is most important in life. While many cultural aspects are similar to Paraguay, there are also differences. Ecuadorian Spanish is different from Paraguayan Spanish in a lot of ways, so I am learning a lot of new expressions, and I have to be careful not to use Guarani words or other terms that people here will not understand!

  1. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

My advice to other current or prospective Fulbrighters would be to avoid comparing your Fulbright experience to other grantees or to some ideal of what the Fulbright experience “should” be. Everyone’s ETA experience is different, and everyone goes through challenges and difficult times. Make the most of your unique experience and appreciate it for what it is, even if it’s not “perfect.”

Living in another country, you will have a lot of experiences that you would never have had in the United States. Even a bad experience can be a learning opportunity. Sometimes it’s the little things that make you smile, like eating humitas (steamed, fresh corn cakes) or hearing reggaeton music on the bus.

If your biggest accomplishment of the week is that you took the bus by yourself and didn’t get lost, that’s okay. Allow yourself to be excited about that!

Rebecca Thomas is originally from Vermont.  She graduated from Hampshire College in 2011 with a self-designed concentration in the Intersections of Environmental Issues and Social Justice and completed an SIT TESOL Certificate Course in 2016.  Rebecca has previously lived in Paraguay (AFS high school year abroad in 2006) and Senegal (Living Routes semester program on Sustainable Community Development in Senegal in fall 2009).

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