When I decided to attend Tufts in the spring of 2012, I simultaneously made another life-changing decision — to not go to Tufts. Right away, that is. I deferred my admission until the following year and signed up to spend a year in Ecuador with a program called Global Citizen Year.
Global Citizen Year is a 5-year-old “bridge year” program that sends students to Ecuador, Brazil, or Senegal for an academic year between high school and college. Technically, it is a “bridge year,” not a “gap year”, because the year abroad is not a gap, but rather a bridge between two periods of, in my case, of intense academia. Myself, along with 35 other high school graduates, were placed in remote parts of Ecuador, alone, with a host family and an apprenticeship. That is, we weren’t all living together, speaking English, and talking about how much we missed Trader Joe’s, hot showers, and bagels. I was 18 and on my own.
I was placed in a small city, Ibarra, in the Northern Andes, near the Colombian border. I lived with a single mother and her rambunctious teenagers in a modest house at the base of a volcano. I worked in the local market and my job placement was with a grassroots micro finance organization, run by women of the market, for women of the market. They gave out small loans to the members so that they could buy, for example, $10 worth of avocados, and hopefully grow their micro-business. Their effect on the tight-knit community was so impressive — they implemented money saving workshops, health sessions, and fostered a hard-earned general feeling of women empowerment.
So where did I come in — this tall, strange gringa from Chicago? This is a question that I constantly asked throughout the year and still do today. I spoke fine Spanish, but didn’t know the slightest about the economics of microloans. This is where the “service” aspect comes in. How was I to help when I didn’t know anything? On the first day, my boss, Denys, gave me a rose and asked me to help them. What did “helping” entail? I wasn’t glamorously giving away money to impoverished cheese vendors and improving the life of the market on my own. In fact, I probably did little to achieve this vision, in the grand scheme of things. I spent long days sitting on a stool helping friends peel pees and yucca and writing endless numbers of loan calculations that made little sense to me at the beginning. I ran to the hardware store to buy electricity cables and to the tienda to buy tape.
After truly being in the community, amongst my neighbors, I started to feel a niche open itself to me. I felt that there was a demand for an after-school center, a place where I could teach English and help with homework. A peaceful space that was slightly removed from the general chaos of the market where kids could feel calm and focused. So, with much community support, I opened an empty storefront approximately half the size of the shower room in Houston Hall to an unexpectedly large youthful following. I underestimated the difficulty of creating lesson plans. I learned the art of spontaneous lesson planning and of conflict resolution when two kids fight over a slobbery lollypop. The year progressed and I made many good friends in the market, in my family, and in the community. I was a teacher, an older sister, and an informal American ambassador. I came away from the experience feeling older than my 18 years after living in intense, humble, and very foreign conditions for a year. But, I also came to Tufts with a huge appreciation for my college education, raw gratitude for the opportunity to be a student, a realistic world-view, greater patience, and more love for those whom I hold close.
Now I have a deeper understanding of the difficulty in making “the world better.” Being on the ground, outside the textbook, forced me to face reality — the reality that social change and justice are way way more than just volunteering a couple hours here and there. It takes effort, grit, and resilience, (maybe a couple bouts with parasites), to finally take what one learns in a service experience and transform it into change. Hopefully my cohort and those who had similar experiences to me will be able to learn from the adventure and harness that knowledge to one day make their communities happier places.