An evolutionary experience

WHS graduate studies abroad in Ecuador

A recent Washougal High School graduate is following in the footsteps of her father.

Valentina Arias, 20, a junior at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, is spending nearly three months in Ecuador, with 29 other students, traveling each week to a different part of the country.

“My dad, Travis, studied abroad to Chile through Evergreen as well, that’s where he met my mother,” Arias said. “I’ve always loved to travel and experience new places. I tried to study abroad to France in 2011 so I could learn a third language, but it was too expensive.”

After a year of taking evolutionary theory courses, she decided to apply to a study abroad program to Ecuador.

“I would not have been able to afford this trip had it not been for many factors coming together to help make it happen,” she said.

Arias, who speaks fluent Spanish, was hired as program aide. She helps her professors plan various logistics in preparation for and during the trip, like translating emails with contractors, organizing transportation, and helping fellow students with Spanish skills.

The intensive, 10-week program, “Evolution and Ecology Across Latitudes,” incorporates evolution, animal behavior, ecology, zoology, cultural anthropology, Spanish, field biology, research methods, writing and consciousness studies.

Highlights have included experiencing homestays and learning Spanish, and visiting the cloud forest of Maquipucuna, Amazon rainforest and Choco-Andean Corridor.

Other stops will be Otavalo, known for its animal and textile markets, and Yasun? National Park, deep in the Amazon. The program will end in the Galapagos Islands.

“We are studying evolutionary behavior, ecology, and the biodiversity of Ecuador by conducting field research projects,” Arias said. “In the spring, we are all splitting up and going our separate ways to other countries in the neotropics, or back to Olympia, to conduct our own research for upper division science credit.”

Arias will participate in a marine mammal research internship at Cascadia Research Collective in Olympia.

The most challenging part of the experience for Arias has been traveling with a large group of people.

“I love being around people but I definitely tend to hermit away at times,” she said. “It’s been good and bad having to adjust to living with 29 other people, plus our professors and their two kids, at once.”

The easiest transition has been speaking Spanish and adapting to the culture.

“I was born and raised (until age 6) in Santiago, Chile, so being in Ecuador is not a totally radical change,” she said.

Arias’ hopes to become a marine research biologist, and said having field biology experience was a must for her future career.

“One of the highlights of the trip will for sure be the two last weeks in the Galapagos, where we’ll be snorkeling and scuba diving with all the diverse marine life,” she said. “It will truly be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I also took this program because it grants upper division credit, which is a requirement in order to get a Bachelor of Science at Evergreen.”

She advises other students who want to study abroad but lack the funds to look for opportunities to make it happen.

“Apply for scholarships,” Arias said. “Especially study abroad-specific scholarships and grants. It makes all the difference. And blog every single bit of it, because I guarantee, you won’t want to forget a second of this life-changing experience.”