Pitzer’s Ecuador study abroad program continues despite record-breaking floods

Three trucks carrying supplies and people sit next to a river.
Hours of rain caused floods and subsequent landslides Jan. 31 in Ecuador’s capital, Quito, where Pitzer College students are currently studying abroad. (Courtesy: European Union:ECHO:H. Avril 2015 via Flickr)

Even as unprecedented flooding and landslides devastated Quito earlier this month, Pitzer College students studying abroad in Ecuador continue to integrate themselves in the community and learn about the political and social situation in the city.

Hours of rain caused floods and subsequent landslides Jan. 31 in Ecuador’s capital, where Pitzer students are currently living with host families. According to an Al Jazeera report, the flood was caused by rain of around 16 gallons per square yard on the Pichincha volcano, although only about 0.5 gallons per square yard were forecasted. The flooding and landslides have killed 28 people and injured 52 others, according to France24 News

The Pitzer students studying in Quito were unharmed since their host families’ homes are in a different district of Quito from that damaged by the landslide, Pitzer Associate Vice President of International Programs Michael Ballagh told TSL in an email.

Amaya Gustave PZ ’23 first learned of the landslides through social media, later seeing coverage of the aftermath as she watched TV with her host family that night. 

“The landslide happened by the downtown area in the north and … we’re not living super close to the neighborhood that was affected,” Gustave said. 

Pitzer is well prepared to grapple with a range of challenges students might face when studying abroad, be they socio-political or natural, Ballagh said. He cited examples of evacuation from Nepal after the 2015 earthquake and relocation from Zimbabwe to Botswana at the height of the country’s repressive dictatorship under Robert Mugabe.  

“Pitzer is well versed and prepared for emergencies abroad, although one needs to accept that in certain cases, irrespective of international insurance policies and highly sophisticated evacuation protocols, one remains at the mercy of local authorities who often reserve the right to control all emergency procedures,” he said.

The natural disaster didn’t make Gustave apprehensive about being in Ecuador either. The aftermath of the turbulent weather actually gave her insight into the strong community bonds that tie the residents of Quito together, she said. 

“My host family and I went downtown and we took the path that the landslide had ran down, a little bit of it, and you could see just so many organizations and people coming in and showing support and really helping each other out,” Gustave said. 

“Even my [host] mom was gathering up stuff around the house that she could bring down to an organization that would make sure that people can get what they needed.” 

For Gustave, while the experience highlighted community bonds, it also called attention to the large wealth disparity and significant poverty in Quito.

“​​I think that the landslide just kicked a lot of people further down than they were at the moment and there is only so much that the community can do. I think a lot of people are turning to the government and people in higher power to really deal with this poverty crisis,” Gustave said.

That poverty was clear to Gustave even before the landslides, though. From her perspective, the floods have just made the issue of poverty in Ecuador more immediate for Quito’s residents.

“It’s pushing people to really drive home those questions of, ‘where is all of our money going,’ ‘how can we really fix this poverty issue that we have here’ and ‘what can we do to make sure that that people are able to have access to the basic needs to survive and live healthy lives?’” she said.

Overall, Gustave has been enjoying Pitzer’s program so far.

“You get to live really in sync with the locals and just be really immersed in the culture,” she said.

Gustave said it is important that attention is being paid to Ecuador, not just because of the landslides, but also other issues that affect Ecuadorians: a recent oil spill in the Amazon rainforest; the struggles of Indigenous tribes, such as the use of their territory for oil activities and the outsized impact COVID-19 has on their communities.

“I think that with the pandemic and even as time goes on, people are really just starting to hone in on those questions of ‘what will be done for our people?’” Gustave said. 

Pitzer’s Ecuador program director Sebastián Granda Merchán spoke with the Pitzer students in Ecuador about the causes of these recent events in order to help them think critically about the issues at hand, Ballagh said.

“It is not a natural disaster, it is a social and political disaster,” Merchán said. “For many decades the local government has given permission to build houses, gated communities and malls in the Pichincha outskirts, without considering the risks and the logics of the environment.”

In addition to living with a host family, Pitzer students on the program take a core course which, according to the Pitzer Study Abroad website, “offers an important framework for understanding the social, political, economic, and environmental issues in contemporary Ecuador.” 

Students additionally take intensive Spanish language courses or other courses at ​​Universidad San Francisco de Quito if accomplished enough in Spanish already, and undertake an independent study project.

At the beginning of the semester, COVID-19 cases were high, which Gustave said caused concern. 

“Being a foreigner, you don’t want to take up space,” she said. “You just want to be really careful.” 

The program, though, has balanced optimizing the students’ experience with taking proper precautions, as well as being supportive of students and ensuring that they had what they needed, she said.

As COVID-19 restrictions ease up and make traveling more accessible, Gustave will travel to Baños and to the Galapagos, as well as continue to form strong bonds central to the Quito community.

Ballagh said that the study abroad office has been “dealing with global crises in various other parts of the globe over the past week” but declined to comment further, citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

“I can assure you everyone is safe. Numbers abroad are unsurprisingly historically low but we hope to see a level of normality in fall 2022,” he added.

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