Ecuador immersion program quality experience for prospective teachers

A six-week summer excursion to Ecuador that was at once life-changing and academically challenging left an indelible impression on prospective teachers who wish to become effective educators of English language learners, now typically referred to as “emergent bilingual learners.”

As semesters go, a student could do much worse than a summer trek through a cloud forest, a visit to an alpaca farm and a weekend in an indigenous community in the Andes Mountains, all while being involved in the College of Education’s Teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) immersion program in the Ecuadorian cities of Cuenca and Loja in this ecologically diverse South American country.

A group of 21 Penn State students, graduate assistants and faculty became more globally minded and culturally aware through their daily interactions with host families and their Ecuadorian students. They discovered how to turn their surroundings from unnatural to natural and their feelings from uncomfortable to comfortable. They learned that there are more bilingual and multilingual people in the world than monolingual, and that speaking several languages is a normal part of everyday life.

Such an adventure is never without its trying moments.

“I absolutely loved my experience in Ecuador, however, it was also one of the most difficult experiences of my life,’’ said Carly Colavecchi, a junior early childhood education major from Clearfield. “I was challenged every single day by language and cultural barriers. Although it was hard, I’m happy I went through it. I can now be a more successful and empathetic teacher, being able to personally relate to my students and know what it’s like to be a language learner,’’ she said.

Senior liberal arts major Matt Crager of Mount Joy in Lancaster County took with him an extensive study of the Spanish language and returned certain that he will apply for positions teaching English abroad. “I think this program helped me gain the skills necessary to live and work in an intercultural society,’’ Crager said.

Teaching English in a foreign country is not solely about language instruction, it's also knowing how to interact with students of another background and how to show them that you value their culture while giving them a taste of your own.''

The experience of teaching

And early childhood and adolescent education major Sarah Murray of Scranton found her identity as a teacher. “I left the summer experience with new-found teaching beliefs and a sense of goals I know I want to accomplish,’’ she said.

“The trip allowed for optimal learning by throwing us into the teaching practicum to experience for ourselves. The program is unique in the aspect that you are not only taught about teaching, but more importantly you get to experience real teaching.’’

There are numerous things a student must accomplish while learning how to teach English language learners. The program begins in the spring semester as part of a five-course, 15-credit certificate program. Teaching ESL certificate coursework is completed during summer courses on-campus and then continues in Ecuador, where students complete a teaching practicum with a mentor teacher who guides them through instruction of their own English language course to Ecuadorian students.

“Learning about a very different culture, its history and current challenges as well as the region’s incredible beauty and life rhythms all through a hands-on experience with Ecuadorian peers and Penn State students and faculty is incredibly motivating,’’ Smolcic said.

“Many of our students go on to future international experiences; they become teachers attuned to differences of all kinds … cultural, racial and linguistic. Their world is changed as a result of this border-crossing experience and they are stronger, more global people for it.”

“There is clear personal growth that happen when a student realizes, ‘oh, yeah, I can put myself in this totally different space and get along and know what to do and solve my own problems and figure out how to get from my family to the university and back again,’’’ Smolcic, the faculty program coordinator, said.

Colavecchi was part of a family in which she became close to a 4-year-old girl, and she witnessed a strong sense of both the North American culture and the English language. “Whether you believe English is an imperialistic language is up to you, but children in Ecuador are learning it early on,’’ Colavecchi said.

“My host sister was already learning English in pre-school. I was able to connect with her on so many levels because we had the same interests. She loved every Disney Princess, Minnie Mouse and Hello Kitty, all things typical of the United States. Many of her T-shirts had English language on them, for example, ‘I love my BFF’ or ‘I love my mama,’’’ Colavecchi said.

“Host families tend to be very open, warm and friendly,’’ Smolcic said. “And it happens very quickly that many students develop a strong bond with their family. It's an effective way to get an inside experience of new cultural ways, and see how people live, when you’re sharing daily life with a family.’’

Varying perspectives

Smolcic’s students engage in ethnographic observations and explore Ecuadorian culture during the time abroad and offer presentations upon their return about aspects of the culture they’ve noted, sometimes in comparison to U.S. cultures.

Colavecchi and secondary education major Landon McCartney investigated how college-age people in Ecuador lived. They found that unlike most American high school graduates – particularly the ones who choose to attend college – Ecuadorians in their late teens (and well beyond) continue to live with their families because of a strong sense of family unity and collectivist values.

Colavecchi lived in a building of several apartments with 15 family members, most of whom were adults, she said. McCartney’s host sister was 40 and continued to live at home. “The young adult continues to live with their family until they are married and then they move and live with their spouse (and his family),’’ Colavecchi said. “In my host family I had a grandmother, her three children and their spouses and her five grandchildren and two of their spouses. Three of her grandchildren were in their 30s and were still living in the family home.’’

Colavecchi interviewed one of the grandchildren, and 37-year-old Pablo told her that if he were to move out that his family “would be quite sad.’’ Pablo told her that he is a professional artist but his parents still cook for him and do his laundry. He did cite “intimacy issues’’ between him and his girlfriends; he hesitates to bring them to the house “because there are so many people.’’

The students’ schedule in Ecuador is quite intensive with classes each morning and teaching in the afternoons. Weekend excursions such as a visit to a cloud forest – a rain forest at a higher altitude – and an alpaca ranch are built into the program. A hike through muddy, vertical terrain gives students the chance to explore the cloud forest conservation area with a geographer/scientist who explains what they are observing of the area’s plants, animals and efforts to keep the ecosystem healthy.

This year, the group planted 500 trees in the conservation area as part of a ‘carbon-offset’ project to make up for the carbon burned into the atmosphere by their flights and travels throughout the country.

Another weekend is spent in an indigenous community in which the residents speak the language Kichwa, which is a Quechuan dialect spoken in the Andean highlands. “That’s also another valuable cultural language-learning experience for the students,’’ Smolcic said. “It shows the amazing diversity of all nations and culture; there is never a single story.”

It's all about adjustments

All of the integrated and moving parts of the experience evolve into the students developing a sense of what it is like to adjust to being in a new culture and a new language environment, Smolcic said. “They’re preparing to work with English learners who in many cases are immigrants to this country; the program gives them an opportunity to feel what it’s like to walk in the shoes of someone who’s going through this learning process,’’ she said.

“You can talk about it in a classroom setting, but you have to do it to really develop a deep sense of what becoming intercultural means. I think that’s one of the key things this experience offers to students.’’

Overall, Smolcic said, students become aware that there’s a world outside of their own. “Once you go abroad, you enter another cultural context, you make friends and you talk to people and you see how they’re living and you see that we’re all human beings, we all have the same kind of emotions, difficulties and challenges and joys in our lives,’’ she said.

Colvecchi had some stomach distress during the first week in country. “I just wanted to be back home where my real mom would know exactly what to do,’’ she said. “The first week was rough, but after that things got a lot better. My family started inviting me to do things with them.

“New experiences are always difficult to adapt to, and at first managing the new language and culture was hard, but after some time they became my second family and I didn’t even think about the language and culture differences,’’ she said.

A societal understanding

Smolcic said cultural context makes more sense after getting to know host families and understanding their society.

“I think that’s an important thing because immigration to the U.S., which is very political and polarized at the moment, has a lot of consequence to our nation’s future and to the world’s future,’’ she said. “And, we tend to see it from our American eyes. It’s hard to understand that the issue has strong global implications that touch us here in our own communities. In Ecuador, we can see and learn more about both sides of that issue,’’ she said.

“That experience becomes a lot more real when we’re there. Because they’re preparing to work with children of immigrant families, it’s important to understand the social, historical and global inter-relationships that exist in the world today.’’

Crager echoed similar thoughts. “I am incredibly overjoyed with this experience of seeing life in a foreign country,’’ he said. “It is nice to be reminded that although we live on different continents, speak different languages and maintain a host of other differences, we all maintain certain characteristics of humanity that unite us all.

“It made me feel closer to other parts of the world and helped me conceptualize what it means to be a global citizen.’’

Murray pinned a practical approach on the trip. “The Ecuadorian culture pushed me to unleash the control reins I have on life and sit back and enjoy the ride,’’ she said, adding that the culture was one that placed people before money and time spent with family over working.

“I never thought I would be eating guinea pig for dinner or horseback riding through narrow paths in the Andes Mountains, but I left Ecuador after six short weeks with these fond memories, among many others. This experience was something so unique and different than most abroad trips and it will forever have a special place in my heart,’’ she said.

--An information session on the program will take place at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 5 ,in 111 Chambers Building on the University Park campus. The application period for 2017 begins in October.

--For more information about the Teaching ESL program with Immersion in Ecuador visit:

Students participating in the Teaching ESL Ecuador immersion program were able to bridge the gap of cultural and language barriers during their six-week excursion. Credit: Photo providedAll Rights Reserved.

Last Updated September 29, 2016