Kalen Mawer

Academic exchange | Cuenca, Ecuador

5th year Marine Biology and Environmental Studies

Where did you live when you studied abroad? With a host family, about a 30-minute walk from the school. I have a host mother, brother, and grandfather.

What was the hardest thing when you arrived in Ecuador? Definitely the language barrier, but the coordinators do a great job of matching the students with a family that can accommodate them. My host brother speaks almost perfect English, so he’s here to translate if I get stuck.

What was the easiest thing when you arrived in Ecuador? Acclimating to the nice weather!

What did you find different about studying in an Ecuadorian University? We take classes in quarters, so I have two classes for two hours each every day which will be finished by March Break. Then I will have two new classes for two hours each every day. It’s a full course load, but each class is more condensed. It’s quite nice, because by the time we have a test or final, we can still remember what was taught during the first week.

Best things about Ecuador? This is a great place to see a lot of different nature all in a small area. Ecuador is a tiny country, but it has some of the Amazon rainforest, some tall mountains with glaciers, some volcanoes, some coastline, and the Galapagos Islands!

What do you find most interesting about Ecuador? There are many types of cultures all together. Cuenca, the city where I live, is very much like Europe in the sense that it is relatively modern. You can go to a smoothie shop by the school, for example. However, the South American flavour and indigenous culture is very much still present: there are native women who come in from the country every day vending fresh fruits in the streets, and there are some pretty extensive markets.

Most memorable experience in Ecuador: Well, during the orientation week we spent a few days in the Amazon jungle which was incredible. We made chocolate from cacao beans, went river rafting and hiking, and travelled to an animal rehabilitation center by boat. But as an ocean lover, I would have to say I am most excited for our mid-term trip to the Galapagos. I haven’t experienced it yet but I know it will be memorable.

What surprised you most about Ecuador? Maybe the food. I mean I expected a lot of rice, but I did not realize that they eat it with almost every meal here. They also eat a lot of plain bread without any jam or butter or sauce. My host family has been wonderful about showing me some of the traditional dishes; I ate guinea pig! But at the same time, Cuenca is so modern, there is a pizza place five minutes away from my house. There’s Italian food, sushi, burgers, almost anything really.

Food you miss the most and could not get in Ecuador? I have been craving Chips Ahoy Rainbow Chip cookies for some reason, but all they ever have are the ones with regular chocolate chips. Disappointing because the rainbow chips are so much more fun! But it will do. It’s also difficult to find real granola bars, or trail mix. I just ran out of my trail mix that I brought from Canada, and I’m only a third of the way through the program...

What did you miss about Canada when you studied abroad? I miss living so close to the ocean. And I miss my cat. And, I miss having a meal without a bucket of rice on the side. Seriously, there’s so much rice.

What do you like most about studying abroad? The reason I came to South America was to experience a culture very different from my own. I have spent my whole life on the east coast of Canada next to the ocean. To experience the west coast of South America in a mountain range is just so wild.

How many other countries did you visit when you were studying abroad? Personally, only one: Ecuador. But there is an optional end-of-term trip to Peru that many of the other students in the program are taking advantage of. The thing about South America is that it is not like Europe in the sense that travel between South American countries is not very easy. You can’t just hop on a train and head to another country for a weekend. Many of the cities in South America are remote, and you’d have to take a plane to get there. There aren’t even that many roads down here. It may have to do with the fact that the terrain is so varied: there’s the Andes mountains which extend down the west coast of the country, the rainforest (which is so wet, dense, and difficult to navigate), savannah grasslands, etc.

What are your future plans, and has studying abroad made you change your future plans? I plan to work in the field of environmental conservation. I wouldn’t say that studying abroad has changed that, but it has certainly emphasized that conservation (and fostering good habits that don’t further damage the environment) is a worthwhile endeavour if you are a human who lives on the planet Earth.

Do you have any advice to future students, who may wish to study abroad? Go somewhere new and interesting. Branch out. I would definitely recommend going to a place where you get the opportunity to learn a new language, or at least practice a language that you know but isn’t your first language. Seek out new opportunities. There are options that are nice and guaranteed a good experience because there are many students that have done them already, but I would encourage future students to try something completely different and out of their comfort zone. There are almost 200 countries in the world, go to one you’ve never heard of. Oh, and it’s never too late to go abroad (you’re looking at a 5th year who took this extra year specifically to come down here).

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