By: Nick Santangelo

North Ecuador is a long way from North Philadelphia, but that didn’t stop Latin American Studies Semester (LASS) students from making their way to Quito, Ecuador during the spring semester. An intensive Spanish language and Latin American study program, LASS is taught entirely in Spanish from day one.

Its students also spend three weeks in a Latin American country where they live with a host family, attend courses, experience that country’s culture and get to know some of its people. All the while, the students grow their Spanish skills in ways they wouldn’t through classroom learning alone.

Finding the Words

One thing the trip shares with the classroom experience is that everyone speaks Spanish all day, every day. Program Director and Department Chair Hiram Aldarondo identifies this forced, constant use of Spanish and “service learning” as the pillars of the trip. Service learning means students perform charitable work, helping out local communities and advancing their Spanish language skills in the process.

LASS students do some of that work with immigrants right here in Philadelphia, but they really got involved with service learning on a whole new level in Ecuador. Some students took the initiative to paint a mural in one of the local schools, while others wanted to do more physical work. No matter what form their service learning took, however, the students agreed that the experience of interacting with native Spanish speakers every day for three weeks improved their language fluency.

“I would not have grown so much in three weeks if I had just been in a classroom,” says Joanna Fitzmorris, ’18, of the experience. Fitzmorris found that many Ecuadorians treated her like a tourist and were surprised when they discovered she spoke Spanish.

Isabel Nardi had studied abroad before and worked as a travel assistant in Ecuador. She agrees that being put in those types of situations is a great way to be “re-immersed” in Spanish and to remember how to say certain words and conjugate verbs.

I gained a sense of what it means to be in a country without speaking the dominant language

It wasn’t always easy for every student, but being put in these sort of sink-or-swim scenarios left them with little choice but to find ways to say what they were thinking.

Take Alex Voisine, ’18, who describes the experience as “a mix of really awesome and really challenging.” Voisine says one of the biggest challenges was that sometimes “the words just wouldn’t come out.” By the end of the trip, Voisine was largely able to talk with his host family and say the words that were on his brain, but he credits those early struggles with helping him reach that point.

“I could formulate the words in my mind in English, but sometimes I just couldn’t find the words in Spanish to really say what I wanted to say,” he recalls. “So I learned how to talk around words and say what I was trying to say without using the exact word I was thinking of. And I think that and being around people who didn’t speak the same language left me with a sense of humility in which I realized that I gained a sense of what it means to be in a country without speaking the dominant language.

“Things as simple as taking public transportation or ordering dinner—those easy things can be really complicated when we can’t find the perfect words to express yourself.”

image of students group together in front of mountains of ecuador

Overcoming Challenges

The challenge was a bit different for then-freshman Patricia Fernandez, whose family is Cuban. Fernandez thought she already knew everything she needed to know about speaking Spanish because of her family. But Temple University has shown her that she has a ways to go before speaking at a professional level. In addition to reaching that level, she also wants to learn more about literature, linguistics and more in Latin America. Staying with a host family in Ecuador was a great way to get started on that goal.

“Even if you speak the same language, it is still a struggle trying to fit in with another family,” says Fernandez. “My host family in Ecuador—they were really awesome. It was also their first time being a host family. Just that experience in Latin America, which is completely different from everywhere else in the world, it’s not always the comfortable thing living with another family, but I think it’s an experience everyone should have at least once. “

Nardi also had her own unique challenges during the trip. Before coming to Temple, she took a gap year after high school and spent it in Ecuador. Part of why she chose to enroll in the College of Liberal Arts’ LASS program was the chance to study abroad some more without spending an entire semester in another country. Last year she went to Costa Rica with the program before heading to Ecuador this year. Staying with her host family was one of the “most valuable” parts of the experience for her, and it was a lot different than living in North Philly.

“I think it’s challenging because here we are in Philadelphia, and a lot of us live by ourselves and not with our families any longer, so it’s definitely a change of pace,” she says. “But I think like in the way with my roommates here, we are in constant conversation about something. So when you stay with a family or people who speak a different language you are forced in a positive way to speak and figure things out, and it’s like an ongoing game to figure out the language.”

This wasn’t the first study abroad trip for Fitzmorris either, who previously studied in Spain and had a host family there too. Her Spanish wasn’t as strong during that Spain trip as it was when she visited Ecuador earlier this year, which was helpful when interacting with her host mother and even more so with her host brother.

“He would tease me a lot, and it got me to joke around in Spanish,” she explains, “and I would have to think of comebacks, and it would take me like 45 seconds to think of something.”

Putting Things in Perspective

Students didn’t just have to get used to living with families they didn’t know and speaking a language that was, for most of them, not their first. Their adventure also included taking in and trying to understand an entirely new culture and way of living. While Voisine describes Quito as being “like any big global city,” he was struck by the indigenous culture in other parts of Ecuador. Voisine saw “a completely different way of living” that he describes as “mind-expanding” when he visited rural parts of Ecuador during the trip.

It will help them appreciate what they have here

Fernandez also experienced a sobering moment when she saw how indigenous people lived in the Amazon. Originally from Miami and now going to school in Philadelphia, Fernandez always thought of herself as a “city person” and didn’t think she’d do well studying abroad in what she describes as the middle of nowhere.

“What I learned is that these people do live in the middle of nowhere,” Fernandez says. “They don’t have internet or TVs. They have smartphones, though—they still have technology, but they just live with less, bathe in the river every day, help with farming. They just have fun and enjoy their life with very little. So that changed my perspective a lot about what I really need in my life.”

Dr. Aldarondo isn’t surprised that his students were so shocked by this lifestyle. The department chair explains that Ecuador doesn’t have much of a middle class like we do in America, so there is an “extreme” gap between the upper-middle class families the students stayed with and some of the rural and indigenous peoples they visited.

“They can see how poor people live. It’s an eye-opener to them,” says Dr. Aldarondo. “They have never seen or experienced that kind of poverty. They came to me and said they wanted to do more. But I think just to expose them to that, just to see it, is really great. It will help them appreciate what they have here.”

group of students with temple flag in front of ecuadorian monument

Making New Friends

Most students who went on the trip told Dr. Aldarondo that living with and getting to know their host family was the highlight. Fitzmorris and Voisine, however, both say the best part for them came when they traveled to an indigenous village near a volcanic lake in the mountains. Fitzmorris enjoyed the quiet, good food and locals’ hospitality while there. She says everyone spent their time a bit differently, with some students going to the beach and others to the Amazon, for instance. Voisine remembers having a deep conversation with a group of Ecuadorian college students.

“We spent a night around the campfire talking about everything from love to colonialism to philosophy and existentialism,” says Voisine. “It was a five-hour conversation around a fire with people—I don’t even remember their names—but we just talked and bonded and I think that was one of the peaks of the trip because it was in that moment that I realized I could converse with someone in a different language at a really high level and truly learn about somebody else.”

Voisine was surprised to find common ground between an Ecuadorian student and an American student like himself. “The perceived distance between the two countries isn’t that big when you’re engaged in conversation and learning about someone else’s experiences.”

Fernandez made some new friends herself. She had the chance to explore the Amazon on her own a bit and experienced something similar to what Voisine did, only with indigenous people instead of college students. “I was able to connect with people my age who had a completely different upbringing and culture from mine,” she says, “but we still connected and had a really fun day.”

Taking Advantage

Those sorts of connections are just one thing that makes the program unique, and Dr. Aldarondo says plans are in the works to further improve the program after receiving student feedback, such as requests for more service learning variety on next year’s trip. This added variety will come despite the fact that Dr. Aldarondo already thinks there isn’t a program anywhere in the country combining on-campus learning with studying abroad the way LASS does.

“They learn about the grammar,” he says of students in the program. “They also learn about the problems in Latin America. Then we have that international component where we travel, so in that sense it’s unique.”

The formula is resonating with those in the program. Fernandez “absolutely” thinks other students should take advantage of the opportunity to learn Spanish and Latin American culture through studying abroad. Over the summer she’s taking advantage of a Temple program offering her a stipend to once again visit Latin America. This time Fernandez will head to Brazil, which she says is another example of how “open” her education is to outside-the-box opportunities.

you learn not only about the language and culture but about yourself

Speaking of opportunities, Fitzmorris admits she wouldn’t have visited Quito on her own through tourism, but she’s glad she took advantage of the chance to do so through LASS. She learned a lot about Ecuadorian culture and felt like she was “living there instead of just visiting.”

Nardi, meanwhile, enjoyed the trip so much that her only complaint was that it was “too short.” It’s no surprise, then, that she went on the LASS trip two years in a row. To her mind, “it’s good to take advantage” of the various Temple programs

And after the Ecuador trip forced him to learn to communicate in Spanish, Voisine also recommends the Lass program to other students. “That’s where you learn not only about the language and culture but about yourself and your place and position in the world,” he says. “So yeah, for the simple fact that it’s a personal experience and an academic experience, I think as many students as possible should enroll in the LASS program.”

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