This has been brewing within me for six months – as I’m in the midst of concluding a six-month journey, that for which I came to Ecuador in the first place. Actually, my Global Glimpse journey has lasted much longer, and as I look back upon it all, I reminisce on preparing for my first interview, in a hostel in León, Nicaragua, putting more dedication and determination into manifesting that opportunity than anything before (for those of you who know me, you know that’s saying a lot). The rest is history, and first stage of my beautiful experience with GG is detailed here (if you have no idea what Global Glimpse is, you could start here). Although some parts of my time in Nicaragua were very similar, most of my experience with GG in Ecuador has been completely different (and even more wonderful); the conclusion of this six-month period begs a new summary, a new reflection of this job that is so much more than just a job.
My original motive for coming to Ecuador was threefold; I had my main goals set – 1. Assist in the growth of the program here in its second year (create new activities and build new relationships). 2. Continue learning and growing even more, personally and professionally. 3. Take advantage of another chance to connect with my students, work on blurring the line between “Site Manager” and friend, really get to know them. Oh, and the chance to work and live in a beautiful, magical country that was new to me didn’t sound all too bad either.
It’s worth mentioning that I’ve had a new position here in Ecuador – last year as a Program Coordinator I worked with a partner for the whole six months and designed everything together. Here in Riobamba, I am one of two Site Managers – we worked independently for the first two months to each design our own completely unique program, then were joined by our Program Coordinators to help us carry out said program. I am lucky enough that my partner Jose is my perfect complement and stays completely calm when I am freaking out that we are not on schedule or organizing our materials room like a madwoman.
For me, working on the ground with GG is the perfect realization in what I want in a job – a mix between administrative and field work. Every day is different – one day, I might be in the office all day, working on my hourly detail itinerary, designing activities, or reviewing student health information; the next, I am in my “campo” clothes, crossing rivers and learning about crops in the countryside of Ecuador – or surprising myself at my ability to tell the bus driver exactly where to let us off so we can begin the twenty minute walk past fields of quinoa to the rural school we will be visiting with the students. Although the preparation period was all in anticipation of the “real” work, and carrying out the program with our students, I still loved our months in the office – riding my bike along the river to get there, being with our whole team every day (the team here in Ecuador is much smaller than in Nica as the program is brand-new), sharing snacks in our Snack Challenge, the five of us piling in one taxi to head to a meeting or lunch, walking up the hill to visit the same comedor for lunch over and over again, playing soccer or Ecua-volley after lunch, filming our takes for the GG music video, taking yoga breaks together, and of course doing the actual work.
No matter what your title or position, this job is testing in so many different ways. As Site Manager, it was nothing but a challenge to start working immediately after arriving in-country and design a brand-program in a city where I barely knew anyone or anything. Luckily, I did have the support of Fernanda, a native Riobambeña who saved my life in more than one way throughout my transition here. Also luckily, I had our country director Héctor, who pushed me to be independent and figure things out on my own. So I did what I do best as a Libra – found a balance. Somehow, I met new people, made my own connections and developed new relationships – and my program turned into a perfect mix of activities with partners that I had met through Fernanda or that they used last year, and those that I created from the ground up, which hopefully will turn into long-lasting relationships in the future. Let me tell you, it was not easy, and I think one of the things that helped me the most was blurring, or maybe even erasing, the line between my work and social life. Several people were those whom I had met on the weekends, throughout my own personal exploration of Riobamba and its culture. Like Victoria, the indigenous woman who invited me to her home and who eventually showed the same welcoming hospitality to my Glimpsers, some of whom said she was the most inspiring person they had met or that visiting her house was the most impactful activity for them. Maybe this is another secret to designing a successful itinerary – trusting your gut and utilizing the contacts with whom you personally feel good about. Plus, the amazing thing about it is that those relationships become deeper and more meaningful – and they’re not work relationships anymore; they become your friends and family.
Although there were days when I’d walk into the office feeling satisfied and accomplished, my Mary Janes dusty after a morning’s independent exploration of potential contacts and places to visit, not every meeting was inspiring or positive. Yes, there were let downs, like finding out after a million meetings with a new contact that we wouldn’t be able to work together after all. But once we had a meeting that shook me to my very soul and forced me to question my own identity, my roots, my home culture, and left me feeling discouraged and defeated with tears rolling down my face on a bus. Although we have been lucky to find those people who are accustomed to working with foreigners, who are excited and open to having exchanges with other cultures, especially from the U.S. – not everyone is, and there are some people who are closed-minded, with pre-conceived notions based off of previous negative experiences or political influences. It can be very complicated working with some communities, or even in the city, as the people often see a gringo and automatically associate us with dollar signs – ineffective and unsustainable development practices have left them used to foreigners coming in and simply giving them money or goods, then leaving. This adds a complex layer to our work at Global Glimpse, as we are not only here to provide a life-changing experience for an underserved population of U.S. high school students, but also to create lasting, sustainable relationships with the community and support them in a beneficial way. The “gringo = $$” complex also adds another layer that we need to break through when we explain to the community members that the students come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds, a lot of them don’t have the resources to pay for their trip – yet they are putting money from their own pockets into the fund they contribute to their Community Action Project (CAP), a student-designed project intended to affect sustainable change in their host community.
So, what is this “program” that I poured my heart and soul (and hours) into designing for three consecutive groups of diverse young leaders? It is two and a half weeks chock-full of inspiring and meaningful activities in and around Riobamba, Ecuador, all meant to encourage contemplation of one guiding, life-changing question: “How can I think and act as a responsible global citizen?” In addition to the standard GG themes and intended takeaways, my own program has several distinct themes: learning from the Indigenous culture and evaluating our own relationship with nature, awareness of caring for the environment, and the importance and opportunities for international education. Each activity was chosen or designed specifically with those intentions, the idea was that everything flows and fits together – nothing is random. In fact, I even created my own “road map,” detailing these connections and my “why” for everything that I’d designed, to be laminated (along with my beloved letter from one of last year’s students) and carried around with me all summer, always reminding me of my “fuel” for why I do what I do.
The program has many components: academic seminars (oops, I mean “mental warm-ups”) to provide the students with background information about the eight academic themes – history, culture, education, politics, indigenous worldview, poverty, aid and development, and global business – each of which is accompanied by an activity that allows the students to reflect more on that theme. These include a walking tour of Riobamba, a typical folkloric dance class at the local neighborhood park, a visit to an indigenous cultural center to participate in Inti Raymi, the summer solstice celebration (and the most important indigenous celebration of the year) – complete with a Pamba Mesa, a large and beautiful gathering of food provided by Pacha Mama (mother Earth, or Pachi Mami as my Chicago Glimpsers would grow to call it) that we devoured with our hands, a visit to Victoria’s house to learn how she lives off the land, creating amazing textiles using machines built with her husband’s hands and natural dyes from the plants around her house, a visit to a rural indigenous school to see a day in the life in their classrooms, guest speakers from Fulbright and the Peace Corps who shared their experiences living and teaching abroad, guest speakers from an indigenous involvement group, a politics activity designed by yours truly to reflect on the importance of being involved in our own community and our country’s political landscape, a visit to a local high school that serves low-income students to share the day with them, a speech from my roommate Wellington on the complexities of rural development projects, and a visit to Isabel’s family’s home where they grow their own organic food and where we met the origin of the very plants that nourished them on a daily basis. Some of these activities we repeated with every group, some were unique to a specific group. Not only all of this, but we also had two fun days during which we visited natural areas and desirable tourist destinations like Pailon del Diablo (“the Devil’s Cauldron”), a magnificent waterfall near Baños, as well as the mighty Chimborazo that towers over Riobamba, a destination that in itself requires a blog post dedicated solely to it (you can probably expect that sometime soon). We had two reality challenges: Living Like a Local – when we visited an incredible man named Cesar’s home and farm and learned what it’s like to produce almost all your own food, and the students questioned their definition of poverty – and Working Like a Local – where we spent a day working on farms, in communities, or with the “Canasta Comunitaria,” a local organization’s effort to promote food sovereignty and connect local producers with local consumers. The students also participated in several community service components: giving English classes to locals of any age, and discovering, designing and delivering the previously mentioned CAP, a service project for which we partnered with three amazing local organizations – Escuela Carlos Garbay, a special education school that runs a farm to teach their students basic life skills, Comunidad PUSUCA, a community about an hour from Riobamba, and Casa de la Mujer, a growing organization that supports local women who suffer from domestic violence and other inequalities. Además, we packed in Nightly Meetings every evening (daily reflections about the day and preparation for the next day), Program Seminars throughout the trip (information sessions regarding cultural differences and important preparations for following days/components), Daily Leadership Meetings (afternoon meetings to prepare the next day’s student leader of the day, El Lider del Dia) and Self Reflections (student-led group discussions after important themes or experiences). Oh yeah, and we even had time to eat three amazingly delicious meals a day: breakfast at Café del Tren, a block away from the hostel and run by an amazingly sweet couple named Carmen/Carmita and don Carlos, who makes me laugh with everything he says/does; lunch and dinner at Roma Santa, a restaurant several blocks from our hostel and run by an incredible woman named Isabel who provided us with unbelievably delicious and diverse meals, made with fresh and organic ingredients.
And ALL of this was compacted into a detailed, to-the-minute 17-day itinerary that was similar yet different for each of the three groups. So, now can you understand why it took us 3.5 months to prepare for the students’ arrival?
This is everything that I could have told you about two months ago – before the students arrived. The program was designed, the materials were ready (poster papers for our seminars, articles for mental warm-ups, sign-up and sign-out sheets, accounting materials, the list goes on and on), I had gotten my artistic urges out of my system (painting the ELDD’s hat, our airport welcome sign, and making name signs for their doors), and we were as physically, emotionally, and mentally ready as one can be before heading into a new season in an environment where there will always be something you are not prepared for (even after hours of mental health and behavioral scenario training). We would be receiving a group of 21 from Chicago, and two groups – of 18 and 14 – from New York.
But what could I have not expected, what could I have not told you at that point? How I would come to know the lyrics to “Work” by Rihanna after hearing it a million times (and, I guiltily admit, even on my own accord). How we would have dance parties after dinner. How incredibly bright and talented our students are, and how they would make things their own by adding a new rhythm to the Unity Clap or create a unique introduction ritual for the next ELDD. How our third group’s flight would be delayed for over 24 hours, demanding us to re-arrange our itinerary on the fly. How incredibly helpful and dedicated our partners and providers would turn out to be – Juanito, our trusty bus driver, whose life motto when replying to the question “How are you?” is “muy bien, excelente, y cada dia major” (very good, excellent, and better everyday), who is the calmest man in the world at the onset of a flat tire situation, who involved himself in our program so much more than expected, running errands and helping to set up our off-site meals, helping the students immensely with their CAP, and participating in almost all of our activities; Isabel, our main food provider, who went above and beyond in providing appropriate meals depending on our day’s activities and ensuring that every dietary restriction was taken care of, who provided us with something different so often that Jose and I barely repeated a meal throughout the whole season; Byron, our one-time driver for a trip to Quito, who suddenly came to our rescue in a stroke of luck when public transportation failed us.
I have to admit, there were days when I would continuously go back and forth each ten minutes between loving and hating my job. It’s hard to describe how many things there are going on at once and how a seemingly minute situation can make you – almost – lose your cool. Another thing I worked on this year, emotional intelligence! However, all of those little things that may cause me to be challenged in one moment are made up for, times 100, in all the other moments, so rewarding they cause me to question, how could I possibly be doing anything else? Despite the long hours – we’re talking 16 hour days when you pretty much go back and forth between bed and work – and minimal days off or personal time, this crazy thing happens where the energy comes out of I don’t even know where, and although you arrive home from an exhausting day and have only 7 hours to sleep until you have to get up and go do it again, you still can’t sleep out of excitement for tomorrow, for seeing their smiling faces greet you again, for the activities or reflections or experiences in general to succeed beyond your expectations. I experienced the same feeling last year, and in those very first days of this season I recognized that specific energy that came from within. That, of course, could not possibly begin to exist without COFFEE.
And, of course, my energy was always reflected by that of the group – spiked by the excitement of their arriving and seeing Ecuador and Riobamba for the first time, low if the group was tired or bored, and sad when they were leaving and saying goodbye to the place and the relationships that impacted them just as they had me. It was incredibly rewarding to see that – of course, I had chosen to work with all of these people for a reason. But to see them impact the students just as much really gave me a special satisfaction, just as it was when seeing everything I had thought out and planned for come into fruition. Not just the activities happening, but to hear the students’ reflections, to see them getting it and grasping the intended takeaways, to see the spark igniting in them, that which led me on this very path of promoting and facilitating international education experiences. Ah, que emoción!
Going through the motions is always interesting, and there were certainly moments during the first group where we’d think, “how are we going to do this twice more?” Well, the answer is, you just do. And although repeating the same activities over again seems like it might be redundant, it’s really not. Some things are the same, but every day is different, every group is different, and the group’s personality characterizes each experience in a different way. This year I have often been contemplating the idea of beginner’s mind, approaching every experience as if I were seeing or doing something for the first time, which is also helpful when repeating activities. But sometimes it’s hard not to get excited when you’re surrounded by people who are all experiencing something so new and different to them for the first time, especially when you are accompanied by someone who has never seen a snow-capped mountain before! Plus, when it’s your last work visit to Chimborazo and it’s looking mighty and majestic as ever, it’s sort of impossible not to freak out with excitement, even far surpassing the students’ own wonder. And of course it is surreal how the time flies, how one day you can be on the way to the airport watching Shrek 4 in Spanish, in anticipation of picking up your first group – and before you know it, you are watching Shrek 4 in Spanish again, on the way to the airport to drop off your last group, having made many more trips between Quito and Riobamba, always marveling at the window’s reflection of the lush, green, quilted countryside.
Everything that I’ve detailed gives me a great pride, for I’m always passionate about achieving what I set out to do. I’ve accomplished my original goals, created a new program and learned a lot about working with people. We even had articles written about us in the local newspaper! But the one thing I am the most proud of is having impacted at least one or some of these youth, tomorrow’s leaders, who are full of energy, talent, dreams and endless potential. And having that special feeling of them shouting to me as I leave the hostel for the night, “Goodnight Chelsea, we love you Chelsea!” is the greatest reward I could take away from all of this hard work. We do it for the students, it’s always for the students – that’s the core drive of the entire organization. But in the end, the impact is just as big on us; we learn from them and the experience, grow as human beings and professionals, get to share fun moments and develop deep relationships with each other, the students, the amazing educators that chaperone them, and, almost just as impactful for me – if not more – with the incredible local people that help us make it all possible and provide these authentic, meaningful cultural experiences. And, if we’re lucky, we get to make an impact on them too – make someone’s dreams come true and revive an entire organization, or help bring a family back together just by bringing our groups to their home to share a few hours. These are the impacts we have made that we couldn’t have even imagined were possible at the beginning; these are the impacts that I will remember in the future, just as I’ll remember my students’ smiling faces and the gratitude they’ve shown for our efforts towards their conversion into global citizens.
During the Glimpers’ last reflection, they create journey maps as a way to summarize their experience with GG and begin to be able to articulate its inspiration and impact. This season I’ve been able to create my own journey maps as well, an activity which either brings me to tears or leaves me speechless at the thought of attempting to summarize it all in one drawing, in only 15 minutes. I suppose this blog post in itself is a greater version of my own Global Glimpse journey map, since it’s completely impossible for me to choose only five most memorable moments, only one lesson I have learned about leadership or about myself, only one most inspiring person with whom I’ve crossed paths along the way. I remember my first night as a GG staff member in Nicaragua, surrounded by 17 incredible people who all had similar passions and were all bilingual like me, and I thought to myself, “this job is going to be perfect for me.” Since then, I have learned so much. I have made the transition from relying on my partner in making big decisions and guiding me into me being that person and guidance for someone else. I have crossed hemispheres. I have grown into myself and figured out who I’m supposed to be and the career path on which I’m meant to be. I have allowed my experiences to mold me into the person I am today, just as I intend for my Spanish accent to be molded depending on where in Latin America I might be. I have learned that I can create things for myself, anything I want to be or do is just one manifestation away. I have had the chance to create something really big, and to weave what’s important to me into that, leave my own footprints on a path that someone else might follow. I have made my own family and created a reason to come back here some day. And, I have learned that work can be a lifestyle – the people I’ve met and the friendships I’ve made, especially with my colleagues, are true friendships, friendships that I will forever value, and hopefully, continue to cultivate.
And so, my work with Global Glimpse is coming to an end – for now. It’s a bit surreal to acknowledge, as throughout the past year and a half, I have come to live and breathe Global Glimpse; I feel like this organization, this work, is a part of me. Of course, the journey is not over, and I will carry with me the skills and lessons I have learned through GG far into the future. And maybe one day, there will be an incredibly perfect opportunity for me to do it all over again.
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things.”