One of the running jokes on my study abroad trip in Ecuador was that we were going to become the people we were studying in our Rhetoric of Tourism and Travel course; the tourists who always talked about their trip to quite literally anybody who would listen. Well, I am here, and you’re listening, so I think it is safe to say that the joke is now my reality. However, I find this topic fascinating, and I think that my own perceptions of the moments from the trip that I share with the people around me have existed as the result of that course, and my own awareness of what those moments mean.

I traveled with twelve other students and a faculty member (who is now the Study Abroad Director) Ashley, and her husband Carlos on a 5-week summer Faculty-Led program. This was my first ever experience abroad, let alone without my family and friends, as I knew nobody on the trip with me, making all of it seem terrifying and exciting, and everything I had ever pictured when it came to opportunities to Study Abroad. I could not possibly condense my entire trip into a single blog post, but I think we can get a general idea of what it meant to me by exploring three moments where my awareness changed the way that I view myself and my time in Ecuador.



When we first landed in Quito, Ecuador, it felt as if my entire life had flipped upside down, but in a good way. The air was a bit thinner; the atmosphere of the airport was much more relaxed than a US airport, and even stranger was the experience of riding in an 8-person van as we drove straight through a city with architecture, style, and even words on signs that I had never seen before. I found myself being drawn to look, not just out the window of the car to the vast mountain ranges and mash of many different architectural styles, but also inwards as I turned to the girl next to me who I had just met that day, Maeya, and realized something.

I had prepared for months for this trip, ready for excursions and tourism, excited to just be somewhere different, that I had never understood exactly what study abroad meant that was different from a vacation. This place that I was taking in felt strange, and new, and vastly different than any location I had ever visited before, but it wasn’t just a stop to a bigger place. Ecuador, in Quito, in Cuenca, in Montañita, and even in Baños de Agua Santa, was not simply a place I would visit. The people I had just met at the airport were on a journey with me, one that was more than just a trip.

I felt a weight shift in my brain. We were in a place where people lived their lives normally whether we were there or not, and we had the opportunity to join them, talk with them, and learn to communicate with people who had lived their entire lives in a different place and culture from us. Of course, we were there much more temporarily, but the moment I became aware of just how impactful this one moment of realization was to me, I turned back to my newfound friend and simply said “I guess this is bigger than I thought,” an awareness in a brief moment, simply sitting in a van, that would change the way I viewed my smaller moments throughout the trip in a very big way.


One of my absolute favorite parts of the trip was the time we spent in Cuenca. We were staying in a building with a massive living space, which had an individual bedroom for each participant. The weather was gorgeous, with temperatures at a level that meant we were comfortably in t-shirts and shorts the whole time we were there. In fact, we had even made friends with a few tour guides, people who worked in the markets, and a couple of the local hat museum owners that allowed us to grow even further in our understanding of where we were and even, to an extent, who we were. When the chance came to take a tour to a series of waterfalls on a mountain directly after classes, our entire group jumped on it.

The trip started with a bus ride out there, taking public transport however we could until we got to the first location; an absolutely ethereal waterfall in the center of the mountainous woods, where the moss-covered bridge and circular overhanging photo spot peeked back at us through the mist and leaves. More waterfalls were to come, but a group of six of us elected to, instead of pushing ourselves forwards to the next sight, stay back and swim in the water while taking photos.

Contrary to the perfectly warm weather we had been experiencing, the water was a frigid and biting cold that meant our intention to swim was either insane or incredibly brave. I like to tell people the latter. I had been an overachiever all my life, one who had driven herself to insanity on many occasions by pushing myself too far when I had wanted to just stay where I was at, so even just the act of remaining behind with a small group of people and just enjoying the water and craziness of it all was another huge point of growth for me. This moment; this short, beautiful moment of being okay with staying with a smaller group, of playing like a kid in the freezing waters of a waterfall in the middle of a mountain range, made me feel freer than I had in the eighteen years that I had lived at that point. I finally felt connected to people around me, the nature I was in, and even connected with myself further.

All of this was only further solidified in the rest of my day. We made friends with a taxi driver who drove a truck that had handles so we could all ride in the back through the mountains. As we descended, we were able to embrace the wind from the back of a pickup truck and laugh loudly when passing by cows and other odd animals. The cherry on top was when it started raining. While we already had been wet from the waterfall, making fun of each other as we reached a bus stop and getting to joke with the driver before feeling at home on public transport is something I never would have felt in the United States. The freedom that came from even just existing in a place that didn’t have the same societal expectations of me as the United States felt oddly freeing. Had I not been focusing on what the little moments were doing, I may have never truly experienced the joy that I felt during that whole ordeal.



Finally, another moment that completely shifted how I viewed my journey in Ecuador was when I joined three friends on a 4-hour bike ride through Banos, to the multicolored waterfall art of Pailon Del Diablo, or the Cauldron of the Devil. After multiple incidents of bike errors or confusion of direction, we found ourselves allowing, well, ourselves to be tourist-y again. We took photos at the photo booths (including a totally accurate recreation of the Creation of Man painting in a heart frame) and bought cheesy “I <3 Banos” shirts.

The waterfall itself was breathtaking in the night, the colors of lights shining through the water in ways no camera could capture. We walked over it on a rope bridge and let the mist of the falls brush against our cheeks as we allowed ourselves to experience a perspective we had been tiptoeing around for weeks. Many of us had been trying so hard not to be seen as different, or to blend in and experience the culture. Through Banos, and through the journey to Pailon Del Diablo, we made friends even in allowing ourselves to enjoy the cheesy things. We connected to the Ecuadorians who were visiting the waterfall, took pictures for them and laughed with them as they gave us increasingly funny poses to try to mimic, and managed to find excitement even in the man-made parts of the country.

Being aware of this moment, letting ourselves breathe and simply exist as we were while still connecting to others who lived in Ecuador was one of the most impactful realizations to me. After changing so much, after learning and growing, trying everything in my sight to have no regrets when I left, letting myself just breathe and make connections the way that felt natural to me created a moment that the four of us who biked those whole 4 hours never forgot. We left Ecuador not long after that night, and I still remember daily the freedom I felt when I was at home in Cuenca, when I grew from trying new things, and when I grew even more from discovering that I didn’t have to force myself to change. Simply finding ways to work and connect with others and finding myself in all of that was more than enough and makes the moment at the waterfall incredibly meaningful to me.

Long story short, you never know going into a study abroad opportunity exactly what you’ll walk away with. Jumping into activities can be exactly as growth-inducing as allowing yourself to simply exist somewhere around other people. What’s most important is taking those moments into account, keeping your eyes open to how your trip is changing you and growing with you. Certainly, some of the moments may stay hidden until they are hindsight, but allowing yourself to look at the changes and minutes as they come can entirely change your perspective internally as much as the trip shifts your perspective externally. So, take a chance, and embrace every moment.


If this post got you thinking and you’d like to talk to a study abroad advisor, set up a 1-on-1 advising appointment here.