Fernanda De La Torre is a nineteen year old Century College student from Oakdale, Minnesota. She has a strong interest in pursuing an international career, perhaps in business, development or diplomacy. She was born in Mexico, where her family is from, and moved to the United States at a young age. She speaks Spanish fluently and, prior to her UBELONG placement, had only travelled internationally to Mexico. In May and June she spent four weeks on the "forest and marine conservation" Volunteer Abroad in Ecuador's Coastal Forest. We recently interviewed this bright and dynamic young woman, and are happy to have given her the U.S. President’s Volunteer Service Award.
What motivated you to seek a volunteer opportunity in the Coastal Forest?
One of my life goals is to join the Peace Corps, so becoming a UBELONG volunteer was a great way to get a taste of volunteering abroad. I also wanted to experience something different and having the opportunity to be physical as part of the conservation project was crucial. I wanted to be outside and doing manual work.
Ecuador is also a great place to volunteer in because of the environmental issues there and, because I speak Spanish, not a place where there’s a language barrier for me. Finally, UBELONG rocks! I spent at least five months researching international volunteering organizations and UBELONG is extremely affordable but also gives you so much personal attention and extra benefits.
What was most frustrating or challenging to you during your volunteering placement?
Knowing my days at the reserve were coming to an end. Before I arrived I thought a month would be too much, but just two days in I realized it wasn’t long enough. The experience was amazing. Living how the locals do was also a challenge. We were with them in a rural environment with cold water, mosquitoes and no internet access. But it was an amazing experience that made me realize so much. Also, the Spanish was difficult to understand at first because of the Esmeraldas accent. It took me a week or so to understand the locals, but after that I had no problem.
From what you observed during your experience, what were the three most important characteristics of a successful international volunteer?
First, being open minded and engaged. Nothing on the reserve is not fun, but you need to be open minded about what you’re eating, doing and so on to experience it. Before I left my sister gave me the good advice that you need to try everything and just go for it, it’s not a time to be shy. Don’t be on the sideline, play in the game. Be outgoing. Talk a lot and take every chance you get to try new things.
Second, you have to be eager to learn and passionate about what you're doing. You have so many opportunities to learn during your placement. Even the little things like how the locals work, talk, eat and interact with each other. For example I loved watching the kids of one of the local reserve workers to see how they worked alongside us on the reserve. They would do the hardest work you've ever seen anyone do, but they would always have a smile on their face, they made everything a game and never complained. It was a different approach to life and it was interesting to see.
Finally, bring lots of bug spray! The mosquitoes were bad and I’m allergic to them, so I was itching a lot. When I got back home everyone would ask me, "what happened to your legs?" I would simply say back with a smile, "memories," because to me that's exactly what they are. I’m very proud to show them off back home and I'd do it all over again for the experience!
What kind of impact did you have on the community?
Even though I worked on the conservation project I made a big impact on the people I met considering I was only there for a month. I met children, parents, grandparents and lots of people in the community in general. We talked a lot and learned about each other’s cultures. For example, on the weekends the children of some of the reserve workers would come and I would play with them, show them new games and answer questions they had about the United States.
On the conservation projects we also made a big impact. For example, we helped a poor local family plant cacao plants. Four of us volunteers helped the seven family members. While we were working I didn’t think we were doing a lot, but when we were done I looked around and was amazed by how much we had really done, we had planted over 2,000 cacao plants. For the family we were a huge help and part of the difference in them having a way to live.
How did the people in your host community perceive the role of international volunteers like you?
With open arms. They were very welcoming and they had so many questions about the United States, where I come from and why I was in Ecuador. I knew I was going to learn a lot about their culture and their way of living, but little did I think they were going to have just as much interest and questions for me as I had for them. We talked and laughed a lot. I only realized it when my placement began, but the cultural exchange piece of the experience is extremely big. You learn so much about the Ecuadorians and they learn so much about you.
What did you learn about yourself during your experience?
It’s hard to say in words. I learned my strengths and weaknesses. I learned how to be more outgoing and to put myself in different shoes and look at the world differently even more. I’m also more confident now. I feel more independent and capable of going anywhere and understanding other people and cultures. I felt as if I've grown to be a whole new person. This experience has changed my life in so many ways. This was definitely not my last international volunteer opportunity with UBELONG.
Click on the pictures above to enlarge them. Photos courtesy of Fernanda De La Torre.
To see more pictures, like the UBELONG Facebook page.