A new family and home in rural Ecuador for Urban School alumnus

Olivia Meehan, Staff Writer

While most graduating seniors pack their bags and head to college, Urban alumnus Amelia Wohlers, class of 2016, chose to wait until the fall of 2017 to begin her studies at University of British Columbia. During her gap year, Wohlers traveled to a rural community outside the town of Cotacachi in northern Ecuador for roughly nine months and found the experience transforming. What follows is a personal account by Wohlers, full of immersive stories and key information for anyone who is interested in taking a Gap Year.

“I didn’t feel ready to go to the 13th grade. I was really burnt out. Urban was hard. I just needed some space, so I started looking through the American Gap Association at all these approved programs and I found the Global Citizen Year. This program stood out because the entire time (you are abroad) you are with a family, immersed. I really wanted to do something where I felt part of a community. There are a lot of perfect ways to do a gap year, but I personally didn’t want to spend my year as a tourist because I have my entire life to do that.

In the house was my host mom, my three host sisters, my host aunt, her husband, their four-year-old kid, my host grandma, another uncle, and some really old lady, who I never figured out how she was related to me.

Going into it, I was flipping out because I committed to it for nine months of my life. I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, that I wouldn’t be self-sufficient, that I wouldn’t learn what I had wanted to or that I’d still feel just as burnt out and that it wouldn’t have been a good use of my time. I left Ecuador feeling (that my gap year) was really productive.

I wouldn’t call my gap year fun. It was really difficult. Becoming part of a family is hard. I got in fights with them, and they frustrated the hell out of me, but I love them.

When I got there I was like, ‘Oh my God, what have I signed up for? I have made a mistake.’ Almost everyone in my family spoke Spanish but everyone also speaks Kichwa, their indigenous language. Turned out that more than 75 percent of their conversations were in Kichwa. It was really hard. It took me four months until I could pick up any Kichwa. But with time and a lot of work, I feel like a part of that family and I wouldn’t change a thing. I’ve only been gone for two weeks but I’ve talked to my family every day.

The beginning of November is Día de los Difuntos (Day of the Spirits), Ecuador’s version of Dia de los Muertos. You make a ton of food and you go to the cemetery and share a meal with the entire community. My family dressed me in indigenous wear. To them I never looked presentable, so they dressed me up in the least comfortable clothing I’ve ever worn. During the party (my host mom) started telling me about her first kid that was stillborn. She got married at 16 and had that stillborn kid at 17. She started crying and I did, too. Talking about how it was to go through that so young was a moment where I started to actually feel like part of the family, that I wasn’t just a tourist, that they were so important to me.

Near Christmas, my U.S. family came to visit me and stayed with my host family. We were all together in that tiny little house. It was really overwhelming and strange and wonderful because my U.S. family didn’t speak a word of Spanish so I was doing all this translating. My U.S. mom was just so grateful to them for taking me in because it was a really big step for my U.S. mom as well. It was overwhelming to try to get them to both know each other because I love them both so much. It’s a lot to have two moms, especially in the same space. It felt really important for them to meet. My family in Ecuador is my real family in every way that matters. It’s important to me that both families know each other.”