I’m sitting on the edge of a volcano in a northern province of Ecuador with three of my best friends, watching the sun rise over the lake inside of the crater. We’ve spent the last three days navigating unreliable bus lines, getting lost, and backpacking through the Andean Sierra to reach this vista, and now that we’re here, I know that it’s something I’ll never forget. This experience was one of the many adventures that I had during the eight months I spent living in Ecuador while on my gap (or “bridge”) year with a program called Global Citizen Year. Before going abroad, I had homeschooled my entire life, so the decision to take an alternate path to college wasn’t a difficult one for me to make. I had always dreamed of living or studying abroad, of learning a second language (especially Spanish) and of getting to know a foreign culture in a way that seemed more genuine than just vacationing there.
Ecuador interested me because I knew so little about it, only that is was a juxtaposition: a mix of Spanish and indigenous languages spoken; a mix of Amazon rainforest, Galapagos Islands, and mountainous Andes straddling both hemispheres, all within a total area smaller than California; the peculiarity of abounding mega-diverse environments in a country whose economy is driven by petroleum exports. The more I learned about Ecuador, the more questions I had, and the more I wanted to explore this Latin American country in depth. The year leading up to college proved to be the perfect opportunity to do just that.
During my bridge year, I lived with an Ecuadorian family in San Bartolomé, a tiny rural town high up in the Sierra, known for farming apples and for producing hand crafted guitars. I worked as a teacher’s assistant in the local elementary and high schools three days per week, helping students with their English homework and grading papers, among kids who were more excited, probably, to have a foreigner in their midst than to learn the language.
One day per week I would commute about an hour by bus into Cuenca, the country’s third largest city and a colonial historical site, to study Spanish with the other exchange fellows from my program. Another day I would work with one of my Ecuadorian neighbors on her farm, learning to plow plots of land by hand and milk cows, and on the weekends, I would accompany her into the city to sell her vegetables.
Looking back on my experience, I realize how heavily my homeschool education impacted my time abroad. I went to Ecuador already comfortable with learning through experience and experiment, with learning by asking the questions that interested me, and by listening to people’s stories. In Ecuador, I took this approach and as a result, learned how to speak Spanish, how to make empanadas, the basics of soccer, how indigenous groups are working to preserve their native culture, how the civil rights issues there mirror many of the same ones playing out here in the United States, and perhaps most importantly, how to trust myself. Living with my host family and getting to know their life from an inside perspective gave me the chance to witness an Ecuador that was more diverse, more complex, and more beautiful than the one I’d read about in any book.
After an incredibly transformational bridge year, I will be studying biology at my local community college, and later hope to transfer to UC San Diego to continue in the field of marine science. While I’ve always been interested in this field, I feel that my bridge year allowed me the time and space to gain a greater appreciation for all the opportunities that I have to pursue my dreams. I think my time in Ecuador specifically inspired me to ask, listen, and care more about the issues facing my generation- from indigenous people’s rights to climate change- and to realize that these issues are global. I know that I will take with me to college all of the many lessons that I learned in Ecuador, but this one stands out from the rest: that making the choice to learn about what you care about will always be the right choice.
-Lily Jorrick is a 19-year-old homeschool alumni who lives in Northern California, and hopes to continue traveling and learning languages in the future. Her bridge year in Ecuador was made possible in part by a generous scholarship from the Homeschool Association of California.