Service Learning and Cultural Exchange in Ecuador

Alli Puncha Mashi!

Good Morning Friend!

Nukaka  Lauren Esselburn shutimi kani.

My name is Lauren Esselburn.

STEP Project: Study Abroad

Through my STEP Signature Project I was able to participate in the Youth Engagement and Service-Learning: Partnership with University of Cuenca, Ecuador study abroad program. Through this program I had the opportunity to engage in cultural exchange and broaden my perspectives of the world by assisting in teaching English in a 3rd grade classroom and completing community defined service projects.

New Perspective of My Identity:

From the very beginning of this program, the ways in which I perceive my identity began to change. As a prerequisite of the study abroad program I had to take a Leadership in Community Service course during my spring semester at Ohio State. Through this course we studied how identity plays a part in community service, both ours and the people being served. As a part of this course I had a service placement at the Northern Lights Branch of the Columbus Metropolitan Library where I would go each week to put what I was learning in the course into practice. During my time at this placement I began to gain new perspectives about the privilege of my identity as a white, English speaking American. Many times as I assisted students in the Homework Help Center I found that their homework assignments were not supportive of their need for additional English language support. As I worked with these students I began to think about the privilege that knowing the English language holds not only in the U.S., but around the world.

Embarking on the actual trip to Ecuador, I wasn’t sure how my knowledge from the Leadership in Community Service course and how wrestling with my identity was going to look on the trip. Was my perspective of my identity truly going to change just because I left my own country? It wasn’t long after we arrived at the airport in Quito, Ecuador that I found out the answer to that question would be yes! Shortly upon arriving to Quito I went to order some food at a coffee stand in the airport and I, mostly out of habit, somewhat out of privilege, began speaking English to the woman running the stand. We both awkwardly smiled as she replied to me in Spanish, asking if I could speak Spanish. Cutting myself a break and realizing that this was my first time out of the country I quickly settled on the fact that it was just my initial reaction. But as the trip progressed I began to realize the privilege I have knowing English within the context of traveling to a new country. Being a white, English speaking American in another country shows a lot about your privileged identity. For example, many times on this trip people automatically associated us this tourism, instead of service learning. I even got asked if we were going to the Galapagos Islands while in the airport by a flight attendant. While Cuenca, Ecuador catered a lot to tourism, I experienced many situations where my privilege was not catered to, but almost brought annoyance to the people around me. When I went into to stores or restaurants people would get very annoyed when my Spanish was poor. I remember wishing that everyone could speak English so that it would be easier for me. Now isn’t that a privileged thought! I also remember thinking before I left for the trip that as long as I knew a level of conversational Spanish I should be fine because I was sure other people would be able to speak at least conversational English. Gaining new perspectives on my identity as a white, English speaking American really pushed me and challenged me on this trip. This trip and these experiences gave me a new perspective that even thought my identity comes with privileges that I can experience both in and outside the U.S., that doesn’t mean I have to expect people to cater to me, even though many places in the world are forced to do. This also doesn’t mean that just because I benefit from the privileges of my identity that I have any less responsibility while traveling to respect the people and culture of the areas I am visiting, whether visiting through tourism or through service learning.

As I was going through this program I also gained a new perspective surrounding my identity as a woman. Many times in the Leadership in Community Service course we talked about how woman often don’t see their identity as a group that experiences oppression. In my case, I often struggled to see my identity as a woman as unprivileged mostly because I often felt so privileged by my other identities. Through my time in Ecuador however, I began to see how my identity as a woman is an unprivileged group and that no matter where you are in the world women can and have experienced this oppression in very similar ways. During one of our community defined service projects we served and visited Maria Armor, a safe place and refugee for women and children who have experienced domestic violence and abuse.

Group picture at Casa de Maria Amor, a refuge and safe place for women and children who have experienced domestic violence.

Group picture at Casa de Maria Amor, a refuge and safe place for women and children who have experienced domestic violence.

While serving and touring this facility I was amazed at all that they do there and disheartened at the high level of need for this facility in Ecuador. While we see and hear in the U.S. about many similar situations we often have many different avenues for seeking help during or after experiencing domestic violence and abuse. Maria Amor however, is a very special facility for Ecuador and is very important to the community of Cuenca. While we were there one of the directors of the facility told us that 7 out of 10 women in Ecuador experience domestic violence and/or abuse. That number truly shocked me and made me realize the high level of oppression that women face in Ecuador. At the same time it made me take a new perspective on my own identity as a woman and made me think about how I experience oppression through this identity even if it’s not in the same way other women do.  Upon returning to the U.S. these new perspectives on my identity have offered a lot of light into situations happening in our own culture that I may not have been open to understanding before going through this program.

New Perspective of the World:

The focus of this study abroad program on cultural exchange really allowed me to experience a new perspective of the world and learn from the people I encountered. During the Leadership in Community Service course we learned about intercultural competence, meaning the ability to communicate effectively and appropriately in a variety of cultural contexts (Reitenauer, Cress, & Bennett, 2013, p. 68).  While I got to practice this through my service site at Northern Lights, I really never adapted a new perspective. Through serving Unidad Educativa Quilloac, the school in Quilloac, Ecuador, I was able to gain a new perspective of the world through cultural exchange and was able to practice what it means to have intercultural competence. Even though I struggled to communicate through language my group members and I were able to communicate through a variety of other cultural avenues. For example, on the first day we decided we wanted to play Duck, Duck, Goose with the kids during free time. So one of my co-teachers began to try and explain it to the kids and the kids immediately go Pato, Pato, Ganso!

Playing Pato, Pato, Ganso with our students during free time!

Playing Pato, Pato, Ganso with our students during free time!

The kids knew the game and they loved it so much that we continued to play it every day for the remainder of our time there. It was so amazing to see how we could still communicate and make cultural connections with the kids and build relationships without really needing a similar language. This was really the beginning of how my perspective of the world began to change. I believe my initial assumption about leaving the U.S. was that everything was going to be extremely different, but so often on this trip I found comfort and joy in the similarities, which really gave me room to learn about the differences between cultures. By finding similarities between cultures and being open to learn about the differences, this experience gave me a new perspective that the world is a balance of comparison and experience that doesn’t require an answer or explanation.

The part of cultural exchange that I enjoyed the most was being able to learn from our classroom teacher Rosa, who taught us about their language of Kichwa. It was so amazing to take the learning side of cultural exchange and to be able to just sit and interact with the students as we learned. A lot of the students even wanted to help us learn and did not hesitate to correct us when we were wrong. The students were also very excited to learn about our culture and they loved learning the Itsy Bitsy Spider in English and in Spanish. This experience reinforced my belief in the power of learning from others and gave me a new perspective on the world that people want to learn from one another and value the opportunity to tell their own cultural narratives.


Kali, a student from our 3rd grade classroom correcting my spelling of a word in Kichwa.


I am learning how to say numbers 1-5 in Kichwa. (Shuk , Ishkay , Kimsa , Chusku , Pichka). Photo taken by the teacher of the 3rd grade classroom, Rosa.











One thing I didn’t think about until I experienced it on this trip was the idea of cultural disconnect, where as we were engaging in cultural exchange we would have some areas within our cultures that we could exchange but not be able to truly understand. For example, on the last day of our service the school and the community wanted to honor us with a healing ceremony. As the leader explained what each aspect of the ceremony was portraying, it was still very hard for me to understand what the purpose of the ceremony was or what each symbol truly meant to them in their culture. After experiencing that however, I feel that the importance of this area of cultural exchange was not to try to understand it all, but to respectfully participate and appreciate the value that this holds in their community. Cultural exchange and experiences may not always reveal clarity in understanding or knowledge learned, but it gives you the opportunity and privilege to experience something that is completely outside your own world, to experience someone else’s world and give them the voice and power that allows you to do so.

Our 3rd grade class from the Unidad Educativa Quilloac in Quilloac, Ecuador.

Our 3rd grade class from the Unidad Educativa Quilloac in Quilloac, Ecuador.

New Perspective for the Future:

The change in my perspectives through my experiences on this trip has so much value for my life and future goals, both personally and professionally. It has always been a dream of mine to travel the world and immerse myself in cultures different from my own. So this trip was a first step in that journey for me! From the new perspectives I gained on this trip I got to practice the skills needed to engage in cultural exchange in a way that provides learning and gives voice to both sides of the exchange. Through the challenges I experienced related to language, I feel a new sense of responsibility when it comes to preparing for trips and acquiring a good sense of the language and how it works culturally. As I went through this trip I also believe that I learned a lot about the role identity plays in traveling abroad, but also what role it plays in any situation of cultural disconnects or differences. This trip truly equipped me with a beginning perspective on how to be true to my own culture while experiencing and immersing myself in a culture different from my own.

Professionally, this trip opened my eyes to the differences and similarities in education in different parts of the world. It has always been a professional goal of mine to teach abroad and this trip really offered me a new perspective on how that may transpire and gave me thoughts about what kind of challenges I may encounter by doing so. Overall, I believe this trip opened a door for me to be more willing to take my new perspectives and continue to do the work of learning from others, giving voice to those who don’t have a voice in our world. This trip let me see the value of allowing other people to tell their own stories of their cultures and what it means to set assumptions and stereotypes aside. I hope to continue in this work as an overwhelmed explorer who perseveres with joy through the challenges that come with identity, cultural exchange, and disconnects.

Hiking at Cajas National Park

Hiking at Cajas National Park

Standing over the equator at the equator museum in Quito, Ecuador.

Standing over the equator at the equator museum in Quito, Ecuador.












Reitenauer, V., Cress, C., Bennett, J. (2013). Creating Cultural Connections: Navigating Difference, Investigating Power, Unpacking Privilege. Learning Through Serving (p. 67-79). Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing.

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