Our Stories

Adventures in Espanol

After the last finals are written and the boxes packed up, as most undergraduates head out for three months of academic freedom, Spanish Professor John Uggen and a group of intrepid students pack their bags to fly south.

They are retracing a journey Uggen made fresh out of college, when he volunteered to serve in Ecuador with President John F. Kennedy's newly established Peace Corps. There he worked as an agricultural volunteer with peasant farmers, helped build a school and coached a boxing team. He also met his wife, Martha Gavilanez, who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture and now teaches Spanish at Willamette.

Though Uggen has long since returned to the States, his research is still centered in Ecuador. He published a book about Ecuador's land tenure and is working on a biography about American entrepreneur Archer Harmon, who constructed and directed the country's first railroad -- and its first international corporation. Uggen's findings about the country's multinational corporations were presented at the University of Cambridge in London and the University of Glasgow in Scotland, where investors for the original railroad lived. And he has been invited by the Ecuadorian Academy of History to give public lectures this summer in the Ecuadorian town where he was a Peace Corps volunteer, and where the railroad began -- 100 years ago.

For Uggen and his students, first it's Portland to Quito, where students stay in the homes of locals and practice Spanish. At 9,000 feet, Ecuador's capitol city is the second highest in the world, and Andeans call it "the middle of the world" because it bumps up against the equator.

Then it's a small plane to Coca, a city walled in by Amazon jungle. From there, it's a canoe, an open-sided bus on a road that disappears into rain forest, and another canoe, loaded with food and water, for the final paddle upriver. The trip concludes at the Tiputini Biodiversity Station, where a native guide introduces students to their rustic cabins. Rainwater is collected and generators are turned on for night light.

Uggen has been taking classes to experience the Spanish-speaking cultures of Ecuador and Spain since 1994. In Ecuador, he lectures on the country's history, politics and language; introduces students to Indian market towns; guides them up an active volcano; dares them to snorkel through underwater gardens; and leads hikes into the jungle.

Uggen collaborates with Willamette Biology Professors David Craig and Susan Kephart, who give students an introduction to the local flora and fauna. Ecuador, after all, is home to the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin fashioned the theory of evolution. Uggen also invites luminaries to speak; guest lecturers have included a former secretary general of OPEC (oil is a major export) and the director of the Galapagos National Park.

During the three-week trip, students sleep in the rain forest, in cities and towns, and on board boats at the Galapagos Islands. They read Plundering Paradise to learn about the strains eco-tourism is putting on the country, and discuss how the confluence of oil, money and ecological treasure creates controversy and even violence. Ecuador is a third world country under development, Uggen says.

In spite of the crowded itinerary and studious workload, the trip is popular. And Uggen says the demand for Spanish is high, with 60 percent of Willamette students signing up to learn the language. "Our country is changing," Uggen says. "Hispanics are the largest minority group and may constitute a quarter of the population by 2050."

Willamette is seeking to internationalize its curriculum, Uggen says. "A second language broadens career possibilities, and many of our students will be working abroad at some point. They want this experience, and the Hispanic community here gives students plenty of opportunities to practice.

"I love working with students," Uggen says, "and I like to see them go abroad and come back changed." Janel Addicott '08, a Spanish major who's taken three classes with Uggen, says, "At the beginning of each semester, Professor Uggen admits that he's not a native speaker, and it shocks us. It's inspiring to know that he started at the same level as we did, and that through travel abroad we can become that proficient."

Students, alumni and even community members are invited to visit Ecuador with Uggen. Familiarity with Spanish is not required, and the next trip is not until the summer of 2009, so you have plenty of time to pack your bags and learn a phrase or two.


A Spanish-immersion program, led by Spanish Professor Martha Gavilanez, will be in Ecuador for six weeks this summer. For information about the Ecuador Language Program, visit www.willamette.edu/~mgavilan/Ecuador/index.htm.



04-18-2008