by Kevin Wang
As I sat down in my seat on my flight to Ecuador, I started to panic. As I heard the other passengers around me speaking in Spanish, it was finally starting to hit me. I was leaving the Western world I was used to and heading into a vastly different, unknown world. I didn’t know what the country would be like, I didn’t speak Spanish well, and I going all alone. What if I left and never came back? I would miss year two of PLLC, and well, that would be unacceptable. So I forced myself to calm down. I took out my journal and reminded myself of my goals.
I was heading to Quito, Ecuador to volunteer with Manna Project International, a nonprofit whose mission is to build youth leaders in impoverished communities. As a computer engineering student, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to use technology to improve society. As I’ve worked in engineering companies before, I wanted my stretch experience to be more than writing code; I wanted to get to the root of why I was creating technology. I wanted to see what life was like in a different, developing world, see the kind of problems they encounter, and think about how technology could improve things – or if technology is even the answer.
Luckily, I’ve survived the last two weeks. It’s been hard adjusting; I’ve had to live in a house with seven other volunteers, interact in Spanish, and find my way around on a chaotic bus system. I’ve explored the city, met the other volunteers – who come from diverse backgrounds such as engineering, biology, and economics – and thought a lot about things. I’ve learned more about the organization’s work. In Ecuador, Manna runs a community centre in a poorer neighbourhood with a library and kids space, and also runs educational programs including English, nutrition, and health. I’ve definitely had some culture shock being in this different environment.
After observing the work of the nonprofit here, I’ve discussed with the site’s director on some projects for me. I want to use technology to improve the site’s operations and impact in the community. I have come up with two goals. Firstly, I am digitizing the library. Currently, all the library checkouts are done by hand. I’m designing an Excel-based system that will be faster and more reliable. Secondly, I am setting up a technology centre. The organization has ten laptops they recently received and are not using. I will set up an area where community members can access the internet, view language learning resources, write a resume, and take part in computer literacy programs.
Being in Ecuador, especially seeing poverty and, has opened my eyes to things such as international development, nonprofit work, the impact of technology on society, and life in general. I’ve realized what a gift it is to live in a developed country, in terms of opportunity and quality of life. I’ve realized how hard it is to provide effective international assistance, and how it is even damaging sometimes. I’ve realized that life can be lived many different ways, but in the end, people are people.