Our cohort of undergraduate and graduate students traveled to Ecuador through the Department of Higher Education and Student Affairs during May Session 2016 to participate in a cultural exchange with Universidad de Cuenca and Unidad Educativa Quilloac. Over the course of two weeks we visited historical sites in Quito and immersed ourselves in the culture of Cuenca. Most importantly, we built upon the existing relationship between the indigenous community of Quilloac and The Ohio State University by teaching English and learning both Kichwa and Spanish at Unidad Educativa Quilloac.
I have studied the negative and positive consequences of globalization on indigenous communities in Latin America as a Spanish minor, but this experience brought respect for indigenous cultures and the importance of their preservation to the forefront of my worldview. The children, teachers, and administrators of Unidad Educativa Quilloac welcomed me and my entire cohort into their community and showed us a deeper level of respect and generosity than anything I have ever experienced in the United States. Students and teachers welcomed us into their classrooms, and they showed no inhibition in asking us questions or answering our questions about their culture. From the very first time I stepped through the archway at the front of the school, I stepped into a space of open dialogue where everyone had something to offer and everyone had something to gain by sharing their authentic lived experience with the others.
My understanding of gender roles, poverty, and cultural relativism was stretched through this dialogue, as was my understanding of my own privilege as a college-educated, white female citizen of the United States. This was a challenging process, as it forced me to engage with the historical legacy of colonialism in creating my privilege while also coming to terms with the degrading effects of this legacy on the culture and lives of the Cañari people. I walked into my experience with a textbook understanding of how colonialism shaped our world, but I returned with a deeper understanding of what it means to look within to evaluate the effects of that legacy while also looking outward to validate the fight of those who have been forced to prove the worth of their way of life to the world when it has always held value in its own right
Language played a central role in my transformation during my time in Ecuador. I am conversant in Spanish, but I did not realize how critical that would be to building relationships with students, teachers, and community leaders in Quilloac. Likewise, I did not realize my knowledge of the language would allow me to learn so much about myself.
The first day of class, I felt an immediate connection with my students because I was able to stand in front of them and address them in the language the majority of them know best. We built upon that connection throughout the week in one-on-one and smaller group conversations, but that first day was a turning point for me in my experience because it showed me just how powerful language is as a sign of respect. More importantly, that moment made me realize that the eight years I have spent studying Spanish prepared me to serve in the role of a connecter between my own culture to that of my students, even if it was for a brief period of time. My students immediately wanted to know how to say different words in English, and as the week progressed I was just as eagerly asking them how to say certain words in Kichwa. Aside from all of us gaining an introduction to a new language, these interactions served as authentic, energetic cultural exchanges that came much more naturally than I had originally anticipated.
These interactions are also what showed me that cultural exchange is critical to understanding not only that we have different cultures, but validating the equal importance of our respective cultures to the world at large. One of the most impactful moments of my experience was the fourth day of classes when it was time for the class to “test” my knowledge of Kichwa. Our teacher asked me how I would say “Good morning” in Kichwa, and instructed me to demonstrate by choosing a student from the class to greet. I greeted one of my students correctly, and the excited reactions from the entire class when I spoke the words made me feel just how profound language is as a medium through which we connect to one another on deeper levels than auditory communication. They asked me to do it again and again because each student wanted a turn, and I was just as excited as my students to oblige. However, looking back on that part of my experience I realize just how profound of a sign of respect and appreciation it was that I made the effort to internalize what I learned from our teacher and the students over the course of the week.
Although I could only say a handful of words, that day I was able to use that handful of words to tell my class and the school staff that I saw them and I respected the values of their culture they taught me over the course of the week. I could only articulate that in Kichwa in three or four words that translate to “Hello, friend,” but those few words symbolized a week of learning about the relationship between gender roles and the Cañari peoples’ world view and the colonial legacy of enslaving indigenous peoples or forcing them to work their own lands as indentured servants. Those few words were simple, but they translate to an expression of respect, appreciation, and validation that all too often is not shown by someone who comes from a privileged space to a community that still struggles to preserve its culture because people from privileged spaces in another time felt that only their culture and their values mattered in our world. I recognize that this moment was a small contribution toward connecting our cultures as equals, but it transformed me because it challenged me to think about how my actions can affect others by taking steps, however small they may be, towards closing the divisions that exist between communities, countries, and cultures in our world.
I chose to study Spanish as a minor over the course of my college education because I wanted to be able to help others tell their stories in spaces where they may otherwise be shut out because they did not have the privilege of learning English as a first or second language as I did. This is a broad goal, but my experience in Quilloac gave me a stronger direction and understanding of how I can transform this goal into a resource for others as I pursue a career in law. As both a student and a future attorney, I want to continue working with minority groups in the United States and Latin America to advise them on their rights and assist in the protection and preservation of their cultures. Eventually I would also like to pursue a Ph.D., and this experience showed me just how critical it is to pursue research in how “development” will only occur if we pursue mechanisms of development that are based on the lived experiences of marginalized communities and their cultures rather than our own assumptions about the way the world “should” work.