Ecuador Cultural Immersion for Education Students
by Carolyn Keller (April 2012)
Note: The author is a 2011 graduate of Penn State’s ESL Certificate Program
Ecuador! It's home to the Galapagos Islands, the equator, and, for a month last summer, Penn State students, faculty, and public school teachers from school districts across the state.
From January through August 2011, participating students completed Penn State’s English Second Language (ESL) Certificate Program with an Ecuador Immersion Experience on campus, online, and in Otavalo, Ecuador. The immersion experience itself straddled June and July—summer in the States, but a crisp bit of “perpetual spring” in Ecuador’s Andean highlands, where temperatures hover in the 50–70 degree range year-round.
Students were in Ecuador to learn firsthand the importance of fostering intercultural understanding and effective ways of teaching English to language learners. Penn State was hosted in Ecuador by the Universidad de Otavalo. The university offers this 15-credit program to graduates and undergraduates alike and includes supplements to the immersion aspect through online and weekend courses held before and after the Ecuador experience. Participating students took five classes over the course of eight months. The courses were designed to give students an overview of linguistics, cultural awareness, and English as a Second Language teaching methods.
Once in Otavalo, students stayed with host families, studied a second language—Spanish or Kichwa (the language of the indigenous people of the region) —and took part in a mentored teaching practicum in which they had the chance to implement their newfound knowledge in an English language classroom, with young Ecuadorian students grouped into classes according to their ages, which ranged from 8 to 18.
Students also traveled throughout Ecuador, spending time in its capital city, Quito; the indigenous mountaintop community of San Clemente; and the cloud forests of the Intag region, where students visited an organic coffee farm and a community-organized sustainable agricultural project.
Students returned home changed, with a new perspective on what it means to live life abroad, and what challenges English-learning immigrant learners face in U.S. classrooms. But while the Penn State program itself is intensive and challenging, for many students the hardest part of the program was leaving Ecuador behind.
"I would say that I learned a lot about the world, but I really didn't—I learned a lot about a few people and a few places that had once seemed ‘foreign’ to me, and even that was enough to change my outlook," said Randi Anderson, a Penn State graduate student who participated in the program. "I never stop learning that there are a lot of things you think you know until you see them or experience them yourself.”