GLOBAL IMPACT: ECUADOR
The IQP immerses WPI juniors in the unfamiliar, and while each project center has something special to offer, many of those students have one thing in common: a foreign language challenge.
Completing immersive project work in a new country or community is challenging enough; add in a language barrier and you’ve got something that can be intimidating at best or daunting at worst.
For many who choose the Ecuador Project Center, that challenge is all part of the center’s appeal.
Quillyn Smith ’21 is one of them. “One of the reasons I wanted to go to Ecuador was the language component,” she says. “I wanted the opportunity to be immersed in the language and to talk with native speakers.”
The same is true of project center co-director Courtney Kurlanska, assistant teaching professor in Interdisciplinary & Global Studies. Fluent in Spanish herself, she had been working as a mentor and advisor for WPI’s Engineers Without Borders group during its trip to Ecuador when she approached the center’s founder, Laureen Elgert, and offered her services for the upcoming year as the project center prepared to expand to two full terms.
“I was thrilled,” Kurlanska says of Elgert’s decision to take her up on her offer. “I think finding and advising projects that expose students to the realities of everyday life in Ecuador—the struggles and the joys—is the most important thing we do.”
The center is relatively new (established in 2013), but it has grown quickly. It was open for one term a year when Elgert was the sole director—students now complete their IQPs there in B-, C-, and D-Terms.
“Our projects tend to be on the more social side of the IQP,” Kurlanska says. Take Smith’s project, for example—she and her team worked with a local soup kitchen, creating a guidebook of available resources and tips for the kitchen’s primary patrons, Venezuelan refugees. Their meetings with patrons and representatives from migrant support organizations were usually conducted in Spanish, an experience she describes as “extremely challenging, but something that improved my Spanish and made me a more confident leader.”
Being able to see that change and growth firsthand is something John-Michael Davis, first-year projects advisor, carries with him. “A lot of these projects can change pretty drastically based on sponsor needs or updates, and that can be overwhelming for students,” he says. “You’re never moving in a straight line. To see them be flexible, adapt, and grow along with their projects … it’s very cool.”
Like Smith, Brittany Bolster ’21 chose Ecuador for the chance to improve her Spanish skills, but she also wanted her work to have an influence on the community. Her team’s project, which involved working with Casa Maria Amor, an organization that helps women and children who are victims of domestic abuse, made it easy for her to achieve both. “There will always be problems facing the world, and we as humans have a responsibility to help solve them,” she says. “That’s why I’ll be seeking an engineering job that allows me to have a direct impact on a community in need.”
From strengthening community outreach through museums and improving public transit to promoting community-based tourism, the projects completed in Ecuador are just as varied as the students responsible for them. At the end of each experience, their efforts and relationships fostered with members of the local community are making a difference that transcends barriers—both linguistic and geographic.