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They rode cable cars to Volcano Pichincha, the highest point in Quito, Ecuador, where they surveyed a sprawling metropolis of 1.6 million people.

Down in the city, they volunteered at a preschool, where they cleaned, painted murals and the exterior, installed lighting, built a fence, donated supplies and forged lifelong friendships.

From either vantage point, and many others in between, it was a life-changing experience for 10 first-generation EKU students, many of whom had never traveled internationally or even flown.

The University sponsored the South American trip in June 2016 to give some college students an opportunity to step outside their comfort zone and “learn a lot about themselves,” said Liliana Gomez, a trip leader along with Dr. Bryan Cole, director of military and veteran affairs.

Mission accomplished, say the students.

“Eastern Kentucky University opened that door for me,” said James Campbell, a sophomore nursing major from Hazard. “It really changed my life, and I am so grateful for that.”

Sixty-eight first-generation students applied to go on the journey, the process including an essay on how such an experience might impact them. Fifteen were interviewed before 10 were selected. The group included several Hispanic students, a fast-growing demographic at the University.

Courtney Lush, a junior statistics/sociology major from Louisville, said the trip “significantly expanded my worldview. Never having been immersed in another culture as we were on this trip, my perspective of the world was very limited and somewhat sheltered. We always believed the world outside the U.S. was dangerous and unsafe. After traveling to Ecuador, I found that to be far from true. The world outside of the United States is beautiful, adventurous and full of knowledge. This trip has shown me that you can’t be afraid of life, you must go out and adventure!”

Lush especially enjoyed the sightseeing treks: the waterfall in Otavalo, the Equator and the mountaintop experience (figuratively and literally) high above Quito.

“All of these places had the most gorgeous scenery,” she said. “The waterfall was by far the most beautiful sight I had ever seen in regards to nature.” Just as that sight was “breathtakingly beautiful,” the view from above the city was “a very humbling experience. All of these sights reminded me how beautiful our planet is, and how small we are in comparison.”

Many students agreed, however, that even the most scenic vistas and equatorial climate were no match for the smiles of the children and the warmth of the local people.

“To see their faces light up each day that we returned was the absolute best feeling,” said Tyler Pack, a sophomore Spanish and international business major from Louisa. “Knowing that we were able to help those precious children is something I’ll always carry with me.”

Campbell, whose blond hair made him recognizable “from a mile away,” said he was drawn from the first day to a little boy named Eiker. “He did not know me, did not speak my language, and he knew that I was different. However, this child showed me an unconditional love that I have never before witnessed, and it completely warmed my heart. Every child in this day care was poverty-stricken, and I was in awe at how beautifully loving and accepting he was of his life. It made me realize that it is not only important, but necessary, to be grateful for the life I am blessed to live. When it was time to leave, I started to cry because I knew I would never get to see their bright-eyed and hopeful faces again.”

As a Roman Catholic, Lush found another connection.

“I noticed one of the girls was wearing a rosary around her neck,” she said. “This led to some interesting experiences throughout the week. I wanted to let her know that I was Catholic, too, but I struggled on how to do so because I did not speak Spanish. Finally, I went up to her and said, ‘Me gusta Maria tambien’ (I like Mary, too), while pointing to her rosary, She immediately knew what I meant and gave me a hug. For the rest of the week, she was my little ‘buddy,’ always wanting to follow me around and show me things.”

Gomez, a recruitment and retention specialist who has been instrumental in the fast-growing Hispanic population at the University, said the week was “a great balance” of work and cultural experiences. “We really worked hard at the school, and we were able to use the talents that each student brought.” Among other activities, the students also enjoyed salsa dancing, toured Old Quito, viewed a parade, visited a flea market and watched a local artisan make musical instruments.

Cole noted the camaraderie that quickly developed among the students, who had not generally known each other before the trip.

“There was very little of people going their own way,” he said. “We had a very good group dynamic.”

It helped that every grouping of students among the 10 had at least one who could speak Spanish.

One was Alexcis Ortiz Cazares, a sophomore Spanish major from Chicago, Illinois, who said he would “forever be ‘agradecido’ (grateful) for this beautiful and amazing opportunity to travel. The trip showed me how grateful we should all be for what we have, and how we shouldn’t be so materialistic about everything as there is no need for fancy things in life to achieve happiness. Also, I learned not to judge other people. For example, the local people I met while in Ecuador were the most humble and nicest people I have met.”

The trip’s biggest surprise? That one of Ecuador’s national dishes is “cuy,” known in the U.S. as guinea pig, a common household pet. Otherwise, the students marveled at how much they felt at home, even 3,000 miles away. Lush noted youths hanging out in a sandwich shop after school and the American music blaring from car stereos.

Pack, among those who had never flown, said he would like to return to South America for a study-abroad experience.

“This wonderful trip has given me the courage to expand my reach and try new things I had never dreamed of before,” he said. “It made me realize that I am worth it, and that I can do anything I set my mind to.”

Count Lush among those now ready to explore other new frontiers.

“I definitely have the travel bug now,” she said. “I am ready to visit another country, and see what beauty and knowledge that place has to offer. Once you start traveling, you’ll never want to stop. And, honestly, I don’t believe you should ever stop traveling and exploring the world. God gave us this beautiful planet so that we could enjoy it, not ignore it.”

Prior to the University’s offer, such a trip was beyond Lush’s reach.

“I honestly never believed it would happen because of financial issues,” she said. “I am so thankful that EKU decided to go through with this trip and give us all a chance to see the world. The fact that EKU was willing to… give 10 of its students this type of a once-in-a-lifetime trip really demonstrates how much the University cares about its students.”

For its investment, the University, and the world, get “empowered” students “more willing to put themselves out there than before,” Gomez said.

Or, as Campbell said of himself, a student ready to “experience life to the fullest and really leave my mark on this world.”

This article was also featured in the Spring 2017 issue of EKU Magazine.