I absolutely loved this program. It's so cliché to say, but it really was a life-changing experience for me. I found the academics to be extremely stimulating, but the outside-the-classroom workload was reasonable, which left plenty of time to explore the country. I was especially impressed with how the coursework was accessible to everyone, regardless of Spanish-speaking ability. We had a wide range in our cohort, from native speakers to total newbies, but somehow everyone seemed to feel comfortable and appropriately challenged. As others have noted here, the excursions to the Amazon, Galapagos, and Intag cloud forest were absolutely amazing, in terms of both the ecological and cultural diversity that we had the opportunity to engage with. Our cohort was larger-than-average, with about 24 students, but we were very close. I think everyone felt that they had a solid group of friends to go out and explore the country with. Faba and Sofia were are just the best, very supportive but not at all helicopter-y. The class discussion was very open-ended, with wide variety of viewpoints, as we had students of a variety of nationalities. This was sometimes challenging and very intellectually engaging. My homestay experiences were both excellent, as most or all of the homestay families have long-standing relationships with the program directors and have lots of prior experience hosting foreign students.
For me, the most impactful part of the program was the Independent Study Project (ISP). For this project, we were allowed to stay just about anywhere in the country for four weeks, and work on a research project of our own design. However, we had to partner with a community organization in our project location, and the program directors have relationships with organizations all over, so no one had to be truly "out on their own" if they didn't want to be. I chose to work with a social movement that was protesting state-sponsored mining in the Intag cloud forest. I had such a good experience, and built such strong relationships with community members there, that when I got back to my university in the US, I immediately started working on a way to go back. Ultimately, I assembled a student team, and we were awarded over $20,000 in funding to return to Intag. So, I spent three more months in Ecuador supporting the work of multiple community organizations after graduating from UVA in 2019. I stayed with the same homestay family that I had met in 2018, and I am still in touch with them today. So, I would say that the was not only a great way to forge long-lasting relationships with local people, it also went a long way towards advancing my young career. As soon as it is safe, I can't wait to go back!