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By Kelly Merchan
  • Global Development

A recently piloted bilateral exchange course is providing new engaged learning opportunities for students from Ithaca, New York to Quito, Ecuador. The partnership between Cornell University and the Universidad San Francisco de Quito (USFQ), Cornell’s Global Hubs partner in Ecuador, is fusing collaboration in the classroom and in the field. 

The engaged course "Culture, Communities & Development: From Upstate NY to Quito, Ecuador" meets online weekly while also allowing immersive international field experiences during spring breaks: USFQ students traveled to upstate New York over their break in March, with Cornell students traveling to Quito in April. In both contexts, students met with community-based organizations to learn how they are confronting local challenges with culturally relevant approaches. 

“Our time spent working with different community service organizations in Ecuador left me utterly amazed,” said Lucy Cao ’26, a global development major in CALS. “The remarkable work they do in serving local communities, along with the extreme difficulties faced by both the organizations and society as a whole, was beyond anything I had imagined prior to this firsthand involvement.”

The bilateral exchange course is the second in a new faculty-led study trip series in the Department of Global Development.  This course positions students and faculty from each partner institution as co-equal participants as they collaboratively research common challenges and approaches to community development in both contexts. The dynamic exchange is strengthening the partnership between Cornell and USFQ, according to Julie Ficarra, professor of the practice in Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

Photos from the field: Upstate New York

"The goal of this exchange was to provide a reciprocal opportunity for co-learning that positioned both Upstate New York and Quito, Ecuador as equal parts of the ‘global classroom’ — both places with complex histories, challenges, and opportunities," said Ficarra, co-instructor of the course alongside Sofia Villenas, associate professor of anthropology in the College of Arts and Sciences. 

In the course, all students think about cross-cultural issues of inequality in their home countries, and together imagine how “thinking globally, acting locally” might help address these grand challenges. Students co-presented their collaborative research at symposiums at both institutions, providing a comparative analysis on topics from drug addiction and food security to indigenous sovereignty and affordable housing.   

With support from the Polson Institute for Global Development, USFQ students engaged with local organizations that are committed to community development in their respective communities, including visits to The Learning Farm, Open Doors English, the History Center, the Ithaca Mural Association, and the ILR Co-Lab. 

“This program exposed our students to new ideas, teaching methods, and areas of study that will help them broaden their thinking about solving local and global issues,” said Nascira Ramia, professor at USFQ and co-instructor of the USFQ-based course alongside Karla Diaz Freire. “The program provided students with the opportunity to build international networks with peers, which can be invaluable for future collaborations, academic opportunities, and personal or professional development.”

Photos from the field: Quito, Ecuador

Funding from a 2022 Global Cornell International Cornell Curriculum (ICC) Development Grant provided Cornell and USFQ faculty the opportunity to conceptualize the model for the course. The researchers plan to co-write a paper and present on it at a conference in the fall. For her work on the program, Ficarra received a 2024 Community-Engaged Practice and Innovation Award from the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement.”

"International education with a community engagement component—or Global Engaged Learning—is a growing practice in the U.S. that can uphold unbalanced power dynamics if not managed correctly,” said Matias Flores, Ph.D. student in Development Studies who accompanied the group to Ecuador to perform research. The research is funded by the Polson Institute.

“In this course, reciprocity and mutuality between students and faculty members from Cornell and USFQ are part of an innovative pedagogical design that addresses those challenges,” Flores added. He hopes that the qualitative data produced during this study will help to identify nuances and layers of complex power dynamics that can impact communities in engaged learning or study abroad programs.

Kelly Merchan is the communications specialist for the Department of Global Development in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

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