Exchange Program Enriches Students

BAR HARBOR — There are 17 Ecuadorian high school students visiting Mount Desert Island and participating in a cultural exchange with students from Mount Desert Island High School. They head back home on Saturday, Oct. 9.


“I am just so happy and thankful for this experience to see how different everything is here,” said Soledad Carrera, then added, smiling, “except that here it is very cold!”

The Ecuadorians’ itinerary includes giving presentations to local middle schools to educate students about the history of Ecuador. They learned about daily life on smaller islands than MDI by visiting Vinalhaven. And they visited the Common Ground Fair to witness aspects of life in rural Maine and farming. They went to Boston to get a feel for the city, and have volunteered in Acadia National Park, assisting trail cleaning crews.

MDI students hosting Ecuadorians visited Ecuador in April to learn about the culture there, and to educate people about the culture and customs on Mount Desert Island. The MDI students spent time in the capitol city, Quito, and also spent time in orphanages in the countryside, as well as in the temperate rainforest and the cloud rainforest.

This was part of a cultural exchange program called Ecuador Field Studies at MDIHI. “The reason I started the Ecuador Field Studies Program” says Susan Vafiades-Dias, an English teacher at Mount Desert Island High school, “was because I first visited Ecuador as an exchange student in high school. It was a completely life-changing experience,” she said. “It had such a profound impact on me that I was inspired to give other students a chance to have the same experience, without leaving the country for a whole year.”

During her initial stay, and through many return journeys, Ms. Vafiadas-Dias established contacts in Ecuador. In that country, which is approximately the size of Great Britain, are a diverse population of people, as well as many beautiful mountains, jungles, and cities. That culture provided resources for an exciting and educational curriculum, making Ecuador the ideal place for students to go on a monthlong trip, Ms. Vafiadas-Dias said.

She led the first group of students to Ecuador in 1988. During those first trips, students would stay with Ecuadorian families, however, oftentimes the family would not have children the same ages as the students. “I felt that this was not an accurate representation of what my experience had been like when I was in high school,” Ms. Vafiadas-Dias said. “In order to get this level of immersion,” she continued, “I needed to set up a way for students to stay with Ecuadorians who were of a similar age.”

That is why she contacted Maria Eugenia. Maria Eugenia is the leader of a co-curricular program at a school in Quito, Ecuador called Escuela de Líderes (School of Leaders). The students who take part in that program do volunteer work in the community and work to help educate people, especially other students about current issues. Ms. Eugenia agreed to have Ecuadorian students take on a cultural exchange program.

The experiences for the Ecuadorians and for the American high school students have been a jam-packed roller coaster rides of cultural immersion. “This whole collective experience has opened my eyes to the world. It’s been inspiring,” said MDI’s Alec Jeanotte, who went to Ecuador in April, and has now hosted an Ecuadorian student in his home. “Going to Ecuador was like living one of the adventures I read about when I was a child.”

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