Scott Matarese '11 Johnson Opportunity Grant Winner Volunteers with Students in Ecuador

Scott Matarese applied for a Johnson Opportunity Grant to spend the summer teaching underprivileged students in the rural Ecuadorian highlands through the Village Education Project. He is one of a group of teachers helping to bring the students up to their grade levels.


A typical day here in Otavalo starts at around 6:00 a.m., when the local football stadium hosts an aerobics class. The soundtrack of these classes--everything from dance music to air raid sirens--echoes through the mountains and towns, creating a lovely, although incredibly early, wake-up call for all.

After falling back asleep at 6:05, I awake when my alarm rings at 6:50: time to get up, brush my teeth and hit the gym. We're living in the Hostel Geranio, where one of the owner's family members arranged for us to have access to a gym. I choose to work out before breakfast, since the day is very busy post-almuerzo (breakfast). After my workout, I stop by a small store to buy bottled water and a delicious local beverage that is a mix of orange, lemon and mandarin juice--the perfect way to end a workout.

As I stroll back to the hostel, Otavalo slowly awakens. Street vendors buy bunches of bananas from covered dump trucks that invade the city daily, and store owners set about opening their businesses for the day. Graffiti, although omnipresent in Otavalo, is not as jarring as one might expect: instead of political slogans, most graffiti is composed of messages between novios (sweethearts).

I have my own room at the hostel, and when I arrive I have just enough time to shower before breakfast. My room comes equipped with a small water heater, which, although I believe it to be self-aware, usually cooperates with me and yields at least a few minutes of warm-to-hot water. Breakfast, eaten with all of the other volunteers in the hostel's dining room, consists of coffee, tea, fresh juice, wonderful bread from the panaderia (bread store) and either sliced fruit or eggs, and is devoured while the program staff make announcements for the day.

After breakfast, the other math teachers and I meet in the hostel's office to create our lesson plans, homework and sample problems. Although we teach at two different schools with two different student bodies, all the students will be competing for the same scholarships and thus have to do the same homework and take the same tests in order to preserve fairness and objectivity. Our intense coordination of all scholastic activities is crucial. After several trips to the papeleria (school supply and paper store) to make copies of assignments (neither the hostel nor the project has a copy machine), lesson planning is completed. We have time off until the early afternoon, when lunch is served at the hostel. During this free time, I wander the well-organized but well-worn streets of Otavalo to get a feel for the locale where I am living and teaching. Lunch is served at 1:30 p.m. and is the biggest meal of the day, entailing several courses.

It seems as though no matter how well we allocate our time in the morning, when 2:15 p.m. rolls around and it is time to leave for our school, we are always in a frenzy. Who has the keys to the classrooms? Who has today's homework sheets? Where are the other volunteers? Finally, after much reorganization, we are able to climb into our massive, no-frills Land Rover and head to school.

Our school, located in an area on the outskirts of Otavalo called Mojanda, is built into the side of a mountain and takes about 15 minutes to reach by car. On this drive through Otavalo, we pass vendors selling every type of goods possible, women wearing local traditional clothing and a surprising amount of livestock traipsing through town. As we get to the outskirts of the city, the road changes from paved city street to bumpy, scarified mountain road, complete with terraced agriculture on one side and rows of trees on the other.

The school itself, composed of several one-story brick and corrugated iron buildings surrounding a basketball court and soccer pitch, is named after Federico González Suárez, a 19th-century Catholic archbishop of Quito, and is run by the owner of our hostel. We teach three one-hour classes daily. Students competing for high school scholarships, known as becas, comprise two of these, while the third class is composed of students who, having participated in the program last summer, have earned becas and are now attending classes in order to prepare for colegio secundario (high school). The curriculum consists of four days of classes, with nightly homework, followed by an exam on the fifth day that is meant to assess the students' comprehension of the subject material. Additionally, students' cumulative grades for the summer are assessed as part of the scholarship competition. Although classes are intense to both teach and attend, there is always time for personal interactions.

When classes end at 5:30 p.m., both students and teachers are exhausted. We climb back into our Land Rover and give the few students who live in Otavalo proper a ride back home; the majority of students walk home alone or in groups, no matter what the weather or temperature happens to be. With working families and no mass transit--or really any transit besides their own feet--the burden of attaining an education falls extremely heavily on these students.

Back at the hostel, dinner is served at around 7:30 p.m. and is eagerly devoured amidst conversations about our busy day. Although Otavalo is a nice small town, it is exactly that; there are a few restaurants and no movie theaters, and very little is open past dusk. Our evenings mainly consist of grading homework and tests, communicating with friends and family back home and getting to know other volunteers who represent a wide variety of colleges and countries.

As the 11 o'clock hour approaches, I begin to contemplate sleeping and the day ahead. After all, aerobics class starts in a few hours, as does my day.