Skip to main content

Gaining global perspective by studying geography, culture in Ecuador

| Judy Berthiaume

Can the actions of one Blugold make an impact globally?

Brian Kraegenbrink thinks so.

After living with a host family in the Amazonian rainforest in Ecuador, the UW-Eau Claire geography major now is considering how he can facilitate change through his day-to-day actions, as well as how he might use his college degree to make a difference in the lives of people living in underprivileged communities around the globe.

“With a global perspective, and experiencing the losing-end of a capitalist world, I realize that much can be done to help,” Kraegenbrink says of his potential to make positive change in other parts of the world. “For me, in the future, I will be making conscious decisions to buy fair-trade items and minimalizing my material possessions.

“I also hope to use the geographic knowledge and skills I’m acquiring at UWEC to help shape policy, or to provide land titles or economic development to underprivileged communities.”

Kraegenbrink’s homestay was part of a three-week immersion program in Ecuador, an experience he says gave him a peek into the global capitalist system in which the world operates, and an up-close look at how consumer demand and westernization can leave some populations marginalized and living in poverty with little chance for change.

Sharing a three-room house, which had no electricity, with seven members of his host family, was a moving experience, and a highlight of his time in Ecuador, says the senior from Ogema.

“On a global scale, my homestay family is at the losing end of capitalism,” says Kraegenbrink. “There is little opportunity to advance themselves given the minimal profits in the primary sector of the economy, and access to education often requires relocation.

“However, the endless generosity, upbeat personalities and general warmth of the people showed that material wealth or privilege was not a requirement for happiness. There was no shortage of laughter or energy with my host family.”


Clarissa Moschkau on the “swing at the end of the world” in Banos, Ecuador.

Kraegenbrink was among the Blugolds who took part in UW-Eau Claire’s first Geography and Culture in Ecuador program, a faculty-led immersion experience that gave students opportunities to learn about and experience firsthand the diverse geographies and cultures of Ecuador.

During their time in South America, students explored two geographical landscapes,the Andes Mountains and Amazon jungle basin, in connection with how global forces affect the local environment.

They also learned about cultural diversity, while recognizing a history of inequality and marginalization of certain ethnic groups, and an understanding of the interrelationship between geographies and cultures.

For a geography major, Ecuador — considered the most biodiverse country in the world — is an intriguing place to explore, says Kraegenbrink, who had previously spent time in the country visiting friends.

“It’s just the size of Nevada, but Ecuador offers a coastal zone bordering the Pacific Ocean, a highland zone at the base of the Andes Mountains and a tropical zone in the Amazonian basin,” Kraegenbrink says. “The diversity in the landscape and people of Ecuador allows for a unique experience to learn how geography shapes culture, economics and lifestyle.”

Hailey Nelson, a communication sciences and disorders major who plans to become a speech therapist, also enrolled in the immersion program, but for very different reasons.

She has had limited experiences studying geography and cultures, but Nelson was interested in the program because she knew that in Ecuador, she would have the opportunity to immerse herself in a new culture and country, one that was well outside her comfort zone.

“I liked that it had a focus on culture in Ecuador, and included traveling around the country to several places,” says Nelson of the Winterim program. “I especially liked that it was unlike anything I had done before, including it not being in a university setting but learning nonetheless.

“The idea of being able to learn hands-on intrigued me. I loved the idea of stepping out of my comfort zone and learning about a culture and country through a subject — geography — that I didn’t need specifically for any graduation requirements.”


Blugolds dig a channel to install new water tubes during a service-learning project in Ecuador.

To prepare for the immersion, during the fall semester students enrolled in a “Geography of Latin America” class taught by Dr. Jeff DeGrave, a senior lecturer in geography who also was a faculty leader during the immersion.

“The course was critical in their preparation as it covers the physical and cultural landscapes of South America, indigenous histories and contemporary issues including a history of neocolonialism and marginalization of indigenous communities, along with many relevant cultural, economic, social and political currents,” says Shanti Freitas, coordinator of immersion experiences at UW-Eau Claire and co-leader of the Ecuador program.

Freitas, who lived in Ecuador for three years, used her extensive knowledge of the region and her connections to help create the immersion experience for the students, including the homestays, which students say were among the highlights of the program.

As part of the immersion, each of the Blugolds lived for several days with rural indigenous Kichwa families who are part of Sinchi Warmi (translation: Strong Women), a women’s organization and community project in Ecuador.

During their homestays, the students did whatever their host family did as they went about their daily lives, be it working on the family farm, fishing, playing with the children or cooking meals together.

“This portion of the program is the most immersive, as it allows our students to form connections and experience life as a temporary member of the family, and not a tourist perspective,” says Freitas. “They were able to learn about the advantages and challenges of these families.”

During discussions after the homestays, the students shared the many cultural beliefs and practices that they had observed and experienced with their host families, including how their families maintained a strong connection to the land in the jungle, or how they lived sustainably by growing most of their food, Freitas says.

The time spent with her host family certainly was the most eye opening and, in many ways, the most unexpected part of the immersion, says Nelson, a junior Honors student from Maple Grove, Minnesota.

Nelson quickly bonded with her 10-year-old host sister, but she was bothered — and confused — when she noticed the girl’s family treated her differently than the other children.

She soon learned the young girl had been labeled cognitively disabled, and her family treated her poorly because of her disability.

While it was upsetting to see how the girl was treated, it also forced her to consider the situation from a cultural perspective that differed from the one she has always known, Nelson says.

“My immediate thoughts were of anger and mistrust of my host family,” Nelson says. “Yet while I was sitting in my bed the first night mulling over the sad reality of what I saw, I realized that my host family isn’t at fault; they aren’t aware of and haven’t been educated on disabilities. I then learned that just within the last decade Ecuador’s vice president had a disability and had introduced the first programs designated for people with disabilities.

“I learned to not get angry with my host family for not knowing any better, and I left determined to work toward global awareness of and ending social stigmas toward individuals with disabilities.”

When she arrived in Ecuador, Hailey’s career goals had included working as a speech therapist for a couple of years, joining the Peace Corps, and then later working with children in a clinic.

By the time she left Ecuador, she was rethinking those plans a bit.

She now is considering joining a cleft palate/lip team that travels internationally, and helping to change perceptions of people with disabilities now is a passion that she hopes to make part of her future work.

“I want to help change perceptions both internationally and here in Eau Claire,” Nelson says. “I now see this as a huge part of my future career and goals as a professional speech therapist.

“How my future patients are treated in and out of therapy will be huge in their overall quality of life and the progress they can make. When they feel supported, and not helpless in their disability, the possibilities are endless.”

While the Blugolds now are back on campus, a service project they began in Ecuador is continuing this semester.

While in South American, the students worked with Museo Kamak Maki, a community tourism project and ethnocultural museum. They helped to dig ditches and install a water pipe that would provide more stable and consistent water to the community project.

They also used their geography knowledge and skills to contribute to the regional project.


Kayla Coonen and Kira Kuehl use GPS to create a map of a community tourism project work as part of a service-learning project.

“We collected GPS data of the museum at Kamak Maki to provide legal documentation in hopes of obtaining a land title to protect this area,” Kraegenbrink says. “Additional work is currently in process to provide tourist maps, reference maps for the community, and an interactive web map of Kamak Maki in hopes of boosting geographic knowledge and tourist interest.”

The ongoing project is an example of how an immersion experience allows students to put into practice many of the concepts and ideas they learn in the classroom, Freitas says.

“Students can learn about the Amazon jungle or Andes Mountains in a geography class, or they can learn about how indigenous communities are often marginalized in a classroom,” Freitas says. “But that’s not the same as taking a boat ride on a crater lake where you see rising sulfur bubbles in the water, experiencing how the lack of access to clean drinking water affects your everyday life, or hearing firsthand the effects of oil companies in rural communities. The students did all of those things in Ecuador.

“An immersion experience builds on what students learn in the classroom and brings it to life in a way that only an experiential, hands-on experience can. The relationships formed, lessons learned and experiences are ones that last a lifetime, and have a continuing effect on students’ personal, professional and academic careers.”

Top photo caption: Blugolds hike through a family farm in the community of La Libertad, learning about the agroforestry system.