Exploring Manifestations of Decolonial Education in North to South Study Abroad

September 23, 2015

By Emma Wright

I have been both a student and a practitioner within the fields of international education and Study Abroad in Ecuador and I am the first to admit that I have not always felt comfortable with the type of programming that tends to dominate. As a student, the experience profoundly affected my perceptions of power, privilege, and inequality in a world shaped by imperial and colonial legacies. But I also felt and still feel that such critical reflection is often not the norm within North-South (N-S) Study Abroad programs. Furthermore, I still ask myself whether I took advantage of my privilege to acquire such an understanding without really considering how my presence and experienceaffected locals and contributed to unequal power relations. I wanted to take the opportunity to explore these concerns, and my Master thesis project1 provided me with the resources and tools to be able to do so.

Had I simply become jaded after years of witnessing N-S student mobility? Or were their redeemable or valuable qualities within Study Abroad in spite of its negative aspects? And more importantly, how could it be imagined in different, potentially decolonial, ways?

I would like to share some of the initial findings of my research here as a means to open up further opportunity for dialogue. For a 10-week period I worked as an intern and became part of the learning community that is the Rehearsing Change program created by the Pachaysana Institute based in Quito, Ecuador. I came to this organization after exploring various options in the region. I already understood the local context, and was lucky enough to find practitioners and educators who were actively working to address the concerns that led me to this research. I was present during part of Rehearsing Change’s first pilot semester. It ran from January to April 2015, while I was there from January to March, as I was required to return to Dublin in order to finish writing my thesis during the month of April. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to witness and reflect about the exciting work that Pachaysana has embarked upon within the field of Study Abroad.

The first part of my research project involved an exploration of the literature in the field. What I found was that although there is a large amount of research relating to student experiences and learning outcomes, there is limited focus on the particularities of N-S programs, as well as the interests of local communities and/or program practitioners. The work that relates to the goals of my project is that of those who have analyzed and mapped some of the neocolonial tendencies within Study Abroad (Zemach-Bersin, 2007 & 2009; Doerr, 2012 & 2013; Caton & Santos, 2008 & 2009; Bishop; 2013), as well as those who have begun to make suggestions for improvements or guidelines for more equitable relationships and programming (Breen, 2012; Biles & Lindley, 2009; Blanco Ramirez, 2013; Hartman et al. 2012 & 2014).

But what I found to be lacking was a more direct analysis of what doing Study Abroad differently actually entails and could mean from an arguably more radical perspective. Such a perspective would, for example, address concerns relating to the underlying values of the programs, such as who they are benefiting and directed towards; how they are creating alternative and inclusive learning communities; what in fact is being learned and incorporated into the curriculum; and how programs can mediate some of the stark inequalities that exist in relationships between visiting students and local communities. The theoretical and conceptual aspects of my project were key, as I had to develop a framework that was appropriate to such concerns, that of which I found through Decolonial Education2. If this particular element is of interest, I invite you to explore my thesis further or to keep an eye out for future articles for publication that will be of a more conceptual nature.


Fair Trade Study Abroad

Pachaysanas founding practitioners chose to center the philosophy of the program around the idea of balance (aysana3) as a way to re-think the whoof the learning community and those who receive the primary benefits associated with Study Abroad. This vision and philosophy is accomplished through the implementation of a Fair Trade Study Abroad (FTSA) model where the tuition costs of one U.S. student cover the participation costs of at least one local participant4. Local participants are selected for participation by the partner communities and organizations that Pachaysana works with.

It is important to note here how this model relates to the Fair Trade Learning (FTL) model that has been developed by practitioners within the field of international education more generally. The FTL model was created to address some of the above-mentioned concerns and furthermore, has involved the development of an extensive set of guidelines5. A particular element relating to FTSA is the way in which FTL encourages the generation of reciprocity, including opportunities for locals to participate in accredited courses or to engage in multi-directional exchange (Hartman et al. 2014, p.12). This element diverges from the FTSA model in which the courses themselves are designed to be appropriate and beneficial both for U.S. students and local participants at their very core. It is due to this particular characteristic of Rehearsing Change that I have chosen to use the term FTSA, that of which is a particular example of how FTL has been interpreted and implemented within the educational context of Study Abroad.

The Participants and the Place

The program participants, practitioners, and educators of Rehearsing Change are diverse and come from different socio-economic backgrounds, cultural and ethno-racial groups, pursue various academic and/or personal interests, and range in terms of age and gender. Furthermore, those present represent a broad range of knowledges, not only in varying positions within the commonly employed Indigenous-Western knowledge continuum, but also knowledges that are dependent on different ways of knowing and being that include both experiential and artistic/creative forms. This demonstrates the intentional nature behind Epistemological Equality6 within the program, as a wide array of knowledges are incorporated and valued.

In order to ensure participation and accessibility within the FTSA program model, the majority of classes were held in the Nina Shunku artist collective, the community partner that the organization developed in Quito7. The area that became the classroomwas the performance space of the Nina Shunku house, a property that is collectively managed and frequented by a variety of members of the collective (artists, activists, and community organizers) who were involved in various activities and projects, ranging from Hip Hop competitions and breakdance practices to ceremonial meetings and political organizing. There was an energy present that was particular to this type of space (rather than an on-campus university classroom for example) that influenced the educational experiences that were organized there as part of the Rehearsing Change program. This final element, as well as FTSA, relate to Decolonial Praxis as identified in my thesis.

Pachaysana_43 (1)
Photo here and above provided by The Pachaysana Institute

Learning Environment

In addition to the above mentioned elements, the educational components of the program are centered on arts-based methodologies. This focus, through the learning environment itself, challenges some of the Western conceptions of what counts as knowledge or what is considered appropriate or conducive to learning. In addition, arts-based methodologies allowed the educators to explicitly encourage creation, recognizing and valuing each individual as creators and generators of knowledge and culture in a tangible way. The arts were central to communication across difference and formed the groundwork for an environment based on trust, respect, radical openness, and care8.

The possibility of relationship building and learning based on shared histories and experiences within the Americas was another fascinating element that arose. Although Ecuador and the U.S. currently occupy very distinct positions of power as nation-states within enduring ethno-racial and cultural hierarchies, students were able to make comparisons and share (hi)stories; stories that have the potential to stimulate elements of decolonial solidarity. Examples of the stories shared include a participant from Nina Shunku who shared the ways that he has witnessed racism within his own family due to colonial legacies that have devalued indigenous and Afro-Ecuadorian peoples in Ecuador. Whereas one of the U.S. students shared a poem she described as exploring the forced migration of my ancestors who were slaves in both the United States and Puerto Rico and remembering the women who fought for me to be alive, both Afro-American and Afro-Borinqueña.These aspects relate specifically to Decolonial Pedagogy in that they speak to the type of learning environment created and the relationships that are nurtured in such a space.

Opportunities and Challenges at the Nexus of Study Abroad and Decolonial Education

In terms of the programs operation, Pachaysana was able to access much-needed resources through the financial structure of Study Abroad, as social and international funding in Ecuador is currently limited. Furthermore, practitioners were able to maintain a rather large distance between the institutional structures that mediate and often constrain alternative educational practices and the on-the-ground reality working with local communities and organizations in Ecuador. This allowed for a strong sense of autonomy and control over their project as a whole. But both of these elements coincided with constraints that exist due to market pressures and the predominance of the interests of capital within Study Abroad itself, each of which pushes for short-term and logistically simpleprograms. Furthermore, it was difficult to incorporate the program as an alternative educational project into the rigidness of the academic system as a whole. Both of these elements hindered the programs ability to reach a wider public and to generate the support needed in order to encourage an increase in student participation.

In relation to the learning environment, I already mentioned some of the opportunities above; they coincide with the challenge of mediating the relative privilege of U.S. students and the power relations that can arise between participants9. Although the FTSA model is part of the programs efforts to mitigate or equalize some of the barriers, this does not deny the need for larger structural changes. One of the starkest and inherent inequalities is the reality that many U.S. students are able to travel internationally, while local participants often are not. Finally, an element that is layered upon these concerns regarding power and privilege are the challenges of creating learning communities with incredibly diverse participants. There are many learning styles, perspectives, priorities and interests that enter into play, and the ways in which participants experience these differences can at times hinder the formation of community.


N-S Study Abroad is unique and complex, implying particular challenges, but also potential opportunities for learning, creation, and solidarity. The Pachaysana Institute and the Rehearsing Change Study Abroad program have negotiated and challenged some of the factors within the field that tend to reduce its critical potential. They have demonstrated that the space of N-S student mobility can in fact be utilized to build meaningful, practical, and potentially decolonial alternatives. There is much yet to explore and the hope of this project is to stimulate further dialogue, inviting others to reflect and discuss both the challenges and opportunities that arise at the intersection of the fields of Study Abroad and Decolonial Education.

1 This blog post adapts elements from my Masters Thesis which was submitted in May 2015 in fulfillment of the European Master in International Migration and Social Cohesion (MISOCO). It is necessary to express my profound gratitude to all of those who supported me through the process, most importantly my fellow students and academic supervisors, as well as all of those who became dear friends during my time with the Rehearsing Change program. The ability to carry out my research is entirely indebted to the tireless work and passionate advocacy of Daniel Bryan, one of the founding directors of the Pachaysana Institute.

2 I based my analysis on Latin American decolonial perspectives, in particular that of the modernity/coloniality/decoloniality, or MCD, research group and the work of Anibal Quijano, Enrique Dussel, Arturo Escobar, Walter Mignolo, Catherine Walsh, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, and Boaventura de Sousa Santos. In addition, my theoretical framework was shaped by those in the field of education who articulate their work with this particular perspective (Vanessa de Oliveira Andreotti, Noah De Lissovoy and Michael Baker, to name a few). I have included the full reference list from my thesis for those who are interested in exploring sources further.

3 The name Pachaysana was developed by the founding practitioners through the merger of two kichwa words, pacha (the simplest translation refers to world/universe) and aysana (balance).

4 In the pilot semester under analysis, while there were 3 U.S. students, there were more than 3 local participants. There were 6 official participants, 3 from the Amazonian partner community and 3 from Nina Shunku, while there were also approximately 11 additional participants from Nina Shunku that participated in the open class sessions held in Quito.

5 The most thorough exploration of the FTL model guidelines can be found in Hartman, Paris & Blache-Cohen’s 2014 piece titled Fair Trade Learning: Ethical standards for community-engaged international volunteer tourism.

6 Epistemological Equality is one of three aspects of Decolonial Education that I identify in my thesis. The other two are referred to as Decolonial Pedagogy and Decolonial Praxis. Epistemological Equality relates most directly to educational content, Decolonial Pedagogy to the learning environment, and Decolonial Praxis to the structural mechanisms that shape the programs as a whole. For further information, including a more detailed definition of each concept, please refer to my thesis, pp.23-35.

7 One class was also conducted in the Amazon with two of Pachaysanas’ partner communities, while three classes were conducted at Nina Shunku.

8 A particular example that I explored in detail in my thesis (p.59) was that of the Llaktayuk workshop, which merged the use of arts-based methodology with Andean cosmology, providing students with the opportunity to think from and through an epistemological standpoint that challenges some of the Western abstract universals that are identified within decolonial thought (Mignolo, 2011). The workshop explicitly emphasized the ability of each person to think and interpret these elements from their own perspectives and experiences, or in other words, to re-think and re-signify the Andean concepts under exploration in new and relevant ways both individually and collectively.

9 It is important to note here that power relations were of course affected by a diversity of positionalities and the intersection of nationality along with other identity markers, such as gender and ethno-racial categorization, further complicating how we interpret and imagine group relationships between international actors. Furthermore, this speaks to the issue of over-emphasizing the role of U.S. citizenship or identity as a fundamentally defining characteristic of participants on its own, as highlighted in the conversation above regarding decolonial solidarity.


Emma Wright completed her B.A. in International Development Studies at Trent University. During this time and upon completion she has worked on various research projects in Ecuador, ranging from community-based eco-tourism initiatives in the Ecuadorian Amazon, to her most recent exploration of Decolonial Education and Study Abroad in Quito. In May 2015, she completed her MA in Sociology through an Erasmus Mundus program entitled International Migration and Social Cohesion (MISOCO) in conjunction with the University of Amsterdam and University College Dublin


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