8 Days in Ecuador, One Life-Changing Trip

Entering JWU as a first-year student in Tourism & Hospitality Management, you hear rumors about the infamous FAM Tour — familiarization tours that all Tourism & Hospitality Management students are required to complete before graduation. The trip is with a group of like-minded students, all pursuing a career in the travel and tourism industry.

FAM Tour group in front of the famous, live Cotopaxi volcano

"My career goal has always been to work on travel and immigration policies, and help represent immigrants in the U.S."

Most students take the Tour Management Operations class, which includes the trip, at the beginning of their senior year. The class and tour are taught and led by Assistant Professor Tiffany Rhodes, an amazing professor with extensive knowledge of life abroad and the dynamics of people.

Dancing to Ecuadorian music are Katie Horrigan (left, front), Nicole Pontari, Chris Comstock and Rachel Saffell

Going into my senior year, knowing my FAM Tour class was coming up both exhilarated and horrified me. Before this FAM trip, I had only been to two countries — which, for many people, would be a luxury. Finding out that I was going to venture to South America was one of the most exciting moments of my young adult life. My career goal has always been to work on travel and immigration policies, and help represent immigrants in the U.S.

Assistant Professor Tiffany Rhodes, while leading a group mountain bike ride, in front of Cotopaxi volcano

"Not only did I learn how to be a better tour guide through this experience, but I also learned the kind of person that I want to be and the type of energy I’d like to put out into the world."

On the first day of class, students find out where they will be going on their FAM, and my class found out we were going to Ecuador. The classes held before the trip are a mix of planning the trip’s itinerary and learning supplementary information about the psychology and cultural dynamics of different societies.

A local textile creator shows Rachel Saffell one of the dye pigments she uses in her work

The class is split into groups of three, and each group is assigned to fully plan and execute the activities for one day during the trip. My group was given one of the final days, and we had the freedom to take the day in any direction we wanted. We ended up taking the entire class to a spa in the city of Cuenca, Ecuador, to lather ourselves in volcanic mud and soak up the great sunshine. We checked in with everyone throughout the day and got to know each person on the trip individually. Each group led a nightly reflection at the end of the day, which helped bring the entire class together.

Colorful tiled rooftops in Cuenca Old Town

Traveling to a foreign country is a strenuous and stressful act in and of itself, but add 26 strangers to the mix, and you’ve created any introvert's nightmare. Leading up to the trip, I was a mess of mixed emotions, including excitement, anxiety, and hope for an unforgettable Ecuadorian experience. I know it may seem cliché to say that this trip changed my life, but I can say with 100% confidence that I’m a more open-minded and empathetic human being after being a part of it.

Rebecca Cruz with local textile designer in her shop and studio

From the moment our group arrived in the country of Ecuador, the vibe of the trip was set. The feeling of safety and warmth flowed through the group, and any judgment and societal pressures to fit in were pushed out and replaced with the desire to connect with one another on a deeper level.

Janet Robinson braves the swing ride overlooking Quito

Driving through the countryside of Ecuador felt like something out of a movie. We watched ourselves ascend into the clouds and emerge into lush pastures filled with cattle and small multi-colored cement buildings.

One of many historical buildings in Cuenca, Ecuador's third largest city

As we walked through the towns, we saw families spending time together on the roofs of their homes, hanging their laundry up and enjoying the day. The first thought that crossed my mind was how people with so little could be filled with so much happiness — this is the golden lesson I learned from the FAM. It isn't about what you have, it's about what you make of your life.

Cattle grazing in Machachi near Cotopaxi National Park

The trip allowed me to experience life out of my cultural bubble and see how people live in a foreign country. It also helped put me in the shoes of immigrants from South America coming to the U.S. for the first time, and gave me a sense of how they must feel. It’s easy to get caught up in our own cultural norms and standards that, in the U.S., are often interwoven with material items.

Students hiking at Cuicocha Lake in the Andes, Railroad track for the Devil’s Nose train

One of the hardest things anyone can do is let their guard down and be vulnerable — it's common to feel safer behind the walls that we build to protect ourselves. But, this 8-day journey deconstructed my walls with little struggle. The more I allowed myself to welcome the unknown and the new terrain that Ecuador had to offer, the more I could feel the jagged, hard exterior that I had created for myself being chipped away, chunk by liberating chunk.

The group takes a break in Cuenca

This FAM tour hasn't just reignited the spark inside of me to explore the world — it also allowed me to reflect upon myself deeply. Not only did I learn how to be a better tour guide through this experience, but I also learned the kind of person that I want to be and the type of energy I’d like to put out into the world. If we let ourselves step out of the comfort zones we know and love, we can open ourselves up to a world of vast diversity and hidden lessons that are waiting to be uncovered.

The group takes a break in Cuenca