Jose Julio walks toward me with a conspiratorial smile, places his hand on my shoulder and asks me if I’ve heard of a song called “Gringa Loca.”  When I answer that I haven’t, he laughs and tells me I should look it up.

Now I could be concerned that my political science professor has just instructed me to check out a song entitled “Crazy American Girl,” but frankly, I’m happy to oblige.

The university I attend follows one of the most progressive models I have ever encountered. The vast majority of the professors insist that their students call them by their first names and use the familiar “tú” form instead of the formal “usted” to address them.  So I am taught by Jose Julio, Jorje and Gabriella.

On one of my first days in Ecuador, Jorje beseeched us with a smile, “Please call me “tú,” you’ll make me feel younger.”  Let it be known that Jorje has advised multiple Ecuadorian political leaders and mediated an attempted (and unfortunately unsuccessful) negotiation process between the Colombian government under President Andrés Pastrana and Colombia’s largest guerilla group, the FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), among other illustrious endeavors.

And despite – or I should say because of – these credentials, these professors often begin class by individually greeting their students, kissing them on the cheek as is the custom here and kindly joking around with them.

The resulting atmosphere within the classroom is one of open and respectful discourse among professors and students. A dialogue among peers replaces the all too often distant and tyrannical sense of superiority so many professors in North American colleges convey.

The downside?  Class discussions often veer into long and animated tangents. However, these are more often than not just as enriching – not to mention entertaining – as structured lectures.

Now this sort of setting is actually an anomaly in Ecuador, where social and racial distinctions reign paramount. To begin with, only eight percent of Ecuadorians obtain university degrees.  They’re simply too expensive for a large segment of the population, so only the fairly well-to-do attend. For this reason, Universidad San Francisco de Quito students are nicknamed “pelucones,” a take-off the word “peluca,” (in reference to the wigs aristocrats wore in the 18th century) to designate their middle and upper-class standing. And effectively, their North American and European-branded, posh clothing (which is enormously more expensive in Ecuador than in the States or Europe because it’s imported) stands as a testament to their wealth.

The social atmosphere at USFQ is somewhat reminiscent of that of a high school. You’ll be hard pressed to find a student studying or simply standing on his or her own, and much less enjoying a solitary lunch (that’s what the bathroom stalls are for, right?) But by that same token, my classmates here are exceedingly more inviting than my North American peers. Whereas you can easily go an entire semester only vaguely knowing your neighbors seated next to you at BU, within one conversation here, you’re invited to go out Thursday night to that cool, new bar.

Tuesdays and Thursdays however, I enter a different world. I tutor Rodrigo, an engineering student from another university, at the Hans Seidel Foundation in Quito, an institution which awards indigenous students scholarships to attend university.

The indigenous Ecuadorian populations are generally the poorest and least educated in the country. Up until the 1970s, a principal condition for Ecuadorian citizenship was knowing how to read and write, and since the majority was illiterate, most were denied citizenship.

So for three hours a week, I desperately try to explain inexplicable idiomatic English rules (why do we “check-in” and not “sign-in” to a hotel?), while I learn about Rodrigo’s home life in his native town, and a few Quechua expressions.

Certainly, I’m learning a great deal within the classroom. Ultimately though, the relationships I’m forging with my professors, peers and just about anyone else I randomly bump into and engage in conversation are allowing me to learn an immeasurable amount about the world around me and myself. I can sense my way of thinking slowly changing day by day, and for that I am beyond grateful.

– Meaghan Beatley, DFP Staff