Friday, May 22, 2009

Alumni couple view life in Ecuador through perspectives shaped at Whitworth

For the past year, the McCoys, Jacob, '04, and Erin (Hays), '05, have been working for the Peace Corps in the small Ecuadorian city of Ibarra, where they're focusing mainly on reproductive health issues by coordinating groups of adolescent peer-educators and helping design health education curriculum.

The McCoys say their time in Ecuador so far has been fraught with discoveries about themselves, about the culture there, and about life back home. They say that they've been able to process those experiences more deeply as a result of skills they sharpened and viewpoints they developed at Whitworth.

The couple wanted to live abroad before going to graduate school and then settling into their careers, and they decided the Peace Corps would be the perfect opportunity to do so. In June 2008, they were placed in Ecuador, partly because of their backgrounds in Spanish. Erin earned a Spanish minor and Jacob participated in the Central America Study Program, which he describes as a deeply formative experience where he made many lasting friendships with both fellow students and faculty.

"Before we left, we thought that the adjustments that would be most difficult would have to do with things like crazy bugs, strange food, living with fewer material possessions, exotic diseases, and the heat," Erin says. "Those are certainly adjustments that we made, but they have been by far the easiest."

She adds, "Far more challenging for us have been the inward adjustments, like coming to terms with our own expectations, whether we were aware of them or not, and figuring out how to function in a culture that has its own norms and value systems. Bugs are no big deal, truly."

Erin, a native of Bainbridge Island, Wash., says one of biggest lessons she has learned from her experiences in Ecuador so far has been to appreciate the opportunities available to women in the U.S.

"I have never before felt more aware of my gender than I have here," she says. "I've gained a new understanding for how much respect I command and how many opportunities I have as a woman in my home culture, which women in other parts of the world may never experience."

She continues, "Girls and women here face numerous obstacles. I have spent most of my life taking for granted that my thoughts are valued and my voice is respected, and I believe I will return to my life in the U.S. with a new appreciation and motivation to accomplish things that would be unthinkable for many women living in Latin America."

Erin, who majored in peace studies and religion, says that despite her initial feelings about the Core program, she uses the lessons she learned in Core 350 more often than those from any other class she took at Whitworth. She says learning about worldviews has proved essential in understanding how people and institutions operate in a foreign country.

"I had many great classes, but I think the most valuable thing I learned at Whitworth didn't have to do with one specific person or subject, but rather with the way I was taught how to learn," Erin says. "I remember one of my professors telling us that the most important thing you learn in college is how to ask good questions. It is such a Whitworth cliché, but that has really rung true for me in my years since I graduated. The way in which I engage the world around me has everything to do with my time at Whitworth."

Jacob, a native of McMinnville, Ore., says his time in Ecuador so far has taught him to learn and appreciate what motivates the people there, and to try to see a common humanity underneath myriad cultural differences. The experience has also taught him that meaningful work is integral to his sense of being human, though he says work doesn't define one's worth in Ecuador as much as it does in the U.S.

Jacob majored in English literature and earned minors in leadership studies and sociology. He credits several English professors, including Vic Bobb, Laurie Lamon, Pamela Parker, Leonard Oakland, and Doug Sugano, with challenging and pushing him to think and read critically and to take nothing for granted.

He also says the multicultural emphasis in the English program prepared him for living abroad, which requires an appreciation of diversity and an effort to understand people's divergent perspectives. He began reading Latin American literature for an independent study course at Whitworth and says he grew to love the magical realism of writers such as Gabriel Garcia-Marquez, Carlos Fuentes and Isabel Allende.

"There is a wonderful way that these writers looked at time, death and family, among other things, which was new to me, and this perspective is deeply ingrained in the soul of Latin America," Jacob says. "I see this worldview around me as I live and work in Ecuador."

After fulfilling their 27-month commitment with the Peace Corps, Erin and Jacob will return to the U.S. late next summer. In fall 2010, Jacob would like to begin law school and Erin is planning to begin a master's degree program in public health. They hope to return eventually to the Pacific Northwest so they can live closer to their families.

Located in Spokane, Wash., Whitworth is a private liberal arts university affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA). The university, which has an enrollment of 2,600 students, offers 53 undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

Contacts:

Emily Proffitt, public information officer, Whitworth University, (509) 777-4703 or eproffitt@whitworth.edu.