For my STEP project, I studied abroad for the academic year in Quito and Cotacachi, Ecuador through the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) program and the CIMAS-CEDUCONT Foundation. I studied international development and public health, while also working in a local water department and hospital. Outside of academics and work, I lived with a host family and was able to explore South America during the breaks of the program.
Over any year, I would expect to change; however, during my year abroad in Ecuador, I did not simply change, but rather I completely redefined my career objectives, reevaluated my personal development, and reaffirmed my commitment to social justice. Entering the Minnesota Studies in International Development (MSID) program in Ecuador, I was unsure if I wanted to continue along the pre-medical route, or if I wanted to focus my studies on environmental science; now, after working in a hospital for the majority of the past year, I am certain that I wish to pursue a career in medicine. Although career path clarification may seem mundane, the ability to follow a certain career trajectory without ambiguity is an incredible opportunity to focus without fear of not enjoying the results of that labor. Secondly, I reevaluated my personal development, since I realized the importance of meaningful work in my life. While traveling during the breaks of my program, I was able to get a taste of the vagabond lifestyle, which was something that I always dreamed about while studying for an incalculable amount of time at an OSU library. Contrary to what I originally thought, the notion that you must “travel and see the world” to live fully is often misconstrued. I found the most enjoyment when I built friendships, worked on my project, volunteered, and spent time with my host family. The novelty of the foreign when visiting other cultures may fade, but it is the relationships and the positive change an individual can effect on a community that has left an indelible mark on my life. Finally, living in Ecuador for the year encouraged me to focus my career and volunteering activities to reduce the social inequalities that exist in our country and internationally. Reading about inequality and living in a community in which the white residents have potable water and the indigenous groups lack access to even raw water are two very different experiences. Personally, I view these inequalities as reprehensible, and I hope to devote my career towards reducing them.
Living in Ecuador for the year allowed me to have an incredible amount a variety of experiences, ranging from academic research, classwork, volunteering, traveling, and much more. To best illustrate how my time in Ecuador was so transformational, I’ll discuss the three most impactful experiences I had.
The first part of my project that was particularly salient was working and conducting research at Hospital Asdrúbal de la Torre in Cotacachi, Ecuador. My study focused on the impacts of the perceptions of the health care system from different groups on the utilization of hospital services. The culmination of the project was a presentation to the entire staff and incorporation of the theoretical model created in the decision making process of the hospital management. During the research, I was able to talk to and build relationships with indigenous groups, doctors, and mestizos throughout Cotacachi. Conversing with such an eclectic group of individuals expanded my worldview and my knowledge of the canton and Ecuador as a whole. During this time, I was able to experience the disparities and the public health crisis that I have studied at OSU, while also being able to suggest the practices I have also studied to ameliorate some of these situations. I spent many hours observing and talking to the doctors of the hospital, where I was able to build friendships that I am still able to maintain while at OSU. Finally, having my research come to fruition was incredibly satisfying; currently, my advisor in Ecuador and I are trying to publish the results of the study.
Another integral part of my experience was adapting and living in culture with language different than my own. Undoubtedly, the language skills I developed in Ecuador will be useful for job prospects later on, but I think the lessons I gained from the experience were more nuanced. In the past year, I learned about being a “cultural other” and living in a country were my skin color, accent, and mannerisms were not the norms. I felt the stares while I walked on a busy street, the chuckles at my rudimentary language skills at the beginning, and the pressure to conform, while at the same time struggling to maintain my own identity. I found language to be a critical component to not just communication, but relationships as a whole. Adapting to new grammatical structures and vocabulary is difficult, but one must also use these skills to address people in the appropriate way. After gaining a degree of comfort with Spanish, I was able to relate to Ecuadorians with far more ease and to truly make the most of my experience. Overall, my initial struggles with both the language and the culture were incredibly useful learning opportunities, which will allow me to sympathize with others going through the same experience in the US.
Lastly, one of my favorite aspects of the program was living with two host families – one in the capital of Ecuador, Quito, and the other in Cotacachi. Through this experience, I was able to integrate myself into daily life in Ecuador and make lifelong friendships. Albeit a significant portion of my experience was academic or research based, living with a host family allowed me learn about cultures in a way that no classroom can ever teach. In the end, living with a host family aided my Spanish and my cultural competency, but to me, the most important aspect of the exchange was being able to grow interpersonally and to appreciate the diversity of viewpoints that exists in our world.
The past year in Ecuador has allowed me to reflect on my first two years at Ohio State, gain international context to what I have studied, and to go forward with newfound confidence in the direction of my career. I have a new appreciation of what I am studying, and I now understand the applicability of many of my classes in an international setting. Additionally, I now have experiences and a unique viewpoint that I can use in both my classwork and future jobs that I may hold. As someone planning to go to medical school, living in Ecuador has given me the opportunity to see a part of the world that will be increasingly difficult to visit in the upcoming years. I am therefore incredibly thankful for this chance to contextualize what I have studied, and to add interest to what I will be studying as an undergraduate in public health; hopefully the experience will help prepare me for graduate school as well.
Perhaps most importantly, my project has shown me the moral responsibility I have to work towards reducing inequalities and promoting health in my career. Before, poverty and underdevelopment were nebulous concepts discussed in class; now, they are dangerous realities that must be addressed. Ultimately I was able to enjoy living in a beautiful country, work with inspiring people, and to experience an interesting culture while in Ecuador. With all of the advantages of the program, I am left thankful and indebted to the country; I hope that upon completion of my education that I will be able to work there as a physician to help address many of the health disparities that exist in Ecuador.