In early January, Vanessa Espinosa ’26 was at a community center in Quito, Ecuador, huddled with young kids, chanting “Si, Se Puede!” at the top of her lungs and preparing for a team obstacle-course competition. Moments later, a volunteer at the center abruptly put an end to the fun, announcing in Spanish to the students of the after-school program that the country was in a state of emergency and was no longer safe for civilians. A translator relayed the news to the 15 Boston College students among them. 

As part of the Arrupe International Encounters Program, which promotes awareness of racial justice, community, and faith issues through firsthand experiences, Espinosa and her peers had planned to immerse themselves into Ecuadorian culture and communities on a weeklong trip. But by their third day in the country, emergency evacuation plans were underway as the nation’s armed forces responded to escalating gang violence.

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“There was so much fear and disappointment, and seeing all the kids leaving was really upsetting,” says Espinosa, a marketing student at the Carroll School. “No one really knew what to do. We decided that we should pray.”

Monetta Edwards, the director of the Winston Center for Leadership and Ethics and a faculty mentor on the trip, had been working with their community partner organization, Rostro de Cristo, to follow the developments of political instability across the country. Although the students said they felt safe in the retreat center where they were staying, it became clear to Edwards and other leaders on the trip that it was no longer safe to remain in Ecuador. 

“We could feel the tension. We could feel that there was something changing,” Edwards says. “We noticed that even the staff [at the center] were distracted about the things that were happening. You could sense it.” 

The next day, as a BC extraction team worked to book flights and find safe bus routes to the airport, the group sheltered in place. With emotions running high, Espinosa said the students leaned on each other for support. The trip’s theme was “Called to Community,” and Espinosa noted that the experience was certainly an important lesson in community building, just not the one she had originally expected. 

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“Although we didn't get as much of an immersive experience as we would have liked, I definitely found a community,” she says, speaking of the 14 other Arrupe members and by extension the Ecuadorians they met. “I watched everyone step up at one time or another to comfort other people.” 

Despite having less time than expected to connect with the local communities, the Arrupe members still tried to actively learn more about Ecuador while in lockdown. The group watched a documentary about the oil crisis in the Amazon and talked via Zoom with two nuns located four hours away in the city of Guayaquil. One of the nuns reassured them about the value of their trip and the lessons they were learning, even as violence disrupted their original plans. “She told us that she believed all of this was happening for a reason, and now we needed to do something about it,” Espinosa says.  

Dylan Breen ’24, one of the student leaders on the trip, helped lead an abbreviated “Examen,” a Jesuit meditation on one’s daily experiences, in order to facilitate meaningful reflection among the students and give them a sense of closure before leaving the country. 

“It seemed so abrupt,” says Breen, a finance and entrepreneurship student at the Carroll School. “We wanted to reflect in a way that left people feeling grounded and understood, and also acknowledge that yes, our immersion was cut short but there's bigger problems at hand.”

Reflection continues to be a central part of the experience for the Arrupe group, which arrived safely back in Boston after extensive measures were taken to ensure their return. The following morning, the students and faculty mentors joined together on campus for Mass and a day of reflection where they were able to share their conflicting emotions about the ordeal.

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“Once we touched down there was a sense of immediate relief, but then the worry was about the people that we met,” Edwards says. “We had the privilege of leaving, while this is their new reality. And there's this enormous guilt that I am still living with today.” 

Even with the disappointment that many students felt upon returning, Breen, who had previously taken another trip with Arrupe to El Salvador in 2022, says the experience still taught him valuable lessons. 

“This is probably the best example we could have gotten about the reality of social justice in Ecuador,” he says. “We literally experienced firsthand what this sort of instability looks like and how it impacts real people on a day-to-day basis.”  

After the crisis, Arrupe members are making an effort to move forward in a way that honors the people they met before their evacuation: the Ecuadorians who shared stories about family, faith, and the value of community. 

“Something that we were told by a lot of Ecuadorians was that this [violence] is not Ecuador. They told us not to let this be what our vision of their country is,” says Edwards. “This incident is not going to define Ecuador for me. The people that I met are what I will think of when I think of Ecuador.” 

Now that they are home, the group’s goal is to take the lessons they learned and share them on campus. They will continue to meet throughout the semester to work together and move forward in impactful ways, but Espinosa says she has already noticed how the experience has affected her.

“I definitely think that this trip, in so many ways, has changed the course of my life,” she says. “Coming back to campus and getting back into the routine of the semester has given me a newfound appreciation for the education that I am receiving, and I don’t want to take that for granted.”  

Mason Braasch is a contributing writer and editor for Carroll School Communications.