CEDEI: Working to bridge international cultures

Long before Cuenca was a #1 destination for North American retirees, before Saturday nights in the city offered revellers dozens of restaurants and bars, there was a group of rogue professors from Ecuador, Peru and the States who loved the place.

These teachers, each one an adventurer in his or her own right, started to visit Ecuador with students more than 25 years ago, a time when Cuenca remained out of the limelight of international media attention. There were a handful of expats who had carved out their lives in Cuenca before — some who have been here for 50 years or more — but the group of teachers came with an expressed intention of culture sharing.

These professors envisioned a center that could authentically build bridges between cultures: they wanted to delve deeply into cultural studies, rather than simply skimnming the surface. This seed of a cultural center grew into CEDEI, Centers for Interamerican Studies, a foundation that just celebrated its 26th year in Cuenca.

If you live in Cuenca or are researching a move here, It’s likely you’ve heard of CEDEI. The headquarters is a pink(ish) building on the corner of Gran Colombia and General Torres in Cuenca’s historic district, though there are three other locations as well. CEDEI is first a foremost a school, an educational center. Its mission of bridging cultures is one that is often touted by foundations as the goal, but this goal is rather difficult to achieve. How does a foundation actually bridge cultures, cultures that differ in language, religion, gender roles, socioeconomic status, and politics? The mission continues to be a work in progress, moving steadily forward. Conversation, open ears, and constant flexibility are all required. Recent interviews with Executive Director Mark Odenwalder and Director of TEFL, Bea Jacobson, provide insight into this unique nonprofit organization.

Odenwelder came to CEDEI in 1997, just five years after CEDEI was founded. He was soon to graduate from the University of Richmond in the U.S. and came for justsix weeks; it was enough time enough to spark curiosity.

In 1997, imagine a city that in many ways looked the same as it had for centuries — colonial buildings, balconies over-hanging over the streets, quail eggs sold on the corner, market ladies with their plastic bags slung over shoulders. But it felt very different, especially for foreigners. It was “a quiet city,” Mark says. “There were maybe three places to go for night life at that time and there weren’t many nighttime activities for students. We rotated between Wunderbar and Cafecito; there weren’t many restaurants either. There were really very few expats, really just a couple at the time…”

The lure of a different pace of life was perhaps what brought Mark back to CEDEI. “I was coming up on graduation and not sure what I wanted to do; I just knew I liked studying abroad, so I wrote Steve Wille, the director, and found out about the TEFL program.” The TEFL program was in its infancy at that time, having just started in 1995. Teaching English as a Foreign Language, or TEFL, began at CEDEI out of need.

Bea Jacobson, current Director of TEFL, professor and board member at CEDEI for over 20 years, says, “CEDEI wanted to attract teachers who were well-prepared professionals. (It) decided to begin its own TEFL program as a grow-your-own strategy for preparing and attracting qualified teachers to its faculty…CEDEI saw TEFL more broadly as part of its mission of connecting the cultures of the Americas.”

Teaching English, at its best, is just that: connecting cultures. Nowadays, many think of TEFL as a vehicle for country-hopping and world travel. It can certainly be, but it also provides opportunity to deeply connect with a culture. Mark sensed this when he was just 22; he returned to CEDEI and completed his training in the TEFL program, and then transitioned into the classroom, teaching English. After teaching, he returned to the U.S. and used his Spanish as a consultant in Washington, D.C. for a few years.

Unbeknownst to him, his time at CEDEI was not done.

In Ecuador, CEDEI was continuing its metamorphosis. As it attracted more students, it developed beyond International Programs (study abroad), TEFL, and English Programs for Ecuadorians. It saw a need for a school that could bring youth together. In 2003, the CEDEI School, a K-12 bilingual school for students from Ecuador and countries around the world, opened its doors. Shortly after, in 2005, Mark had a chance encounter with Steve Wille in Washington and Mark agreed to come back to CEDEI, this time as the Director of International Programs. His fate in Cuenca was sealed when he fell in love with Jobi, the art teacher at the CEDEI School. Mark took over as Executive Director of CEDEI in 2008 when Steve Wille transitioned to President of the Board of Directors.

Being Executive Director is a role that, Mark says, he never would have imagined himself in when he first started his time at CEDEI. The path opened up unexpectedly. Mark is the type of leader who listens, takes in information, and makes changes. His role as Executive Director is collaborative in nature. Diana Rosales, the Director of International Programs, Elisabeth Rodas, the head of English Programs, and Isabel Aguirre, Director of CEDEI School, are the mighty women who hold up the programs and who have helped bring CEDEI to the forefront of study abroad and learning opportunities in Cuenca.

CEDEI needs lots of leadership because it constantly has to reinvent itself. It is not easy to be the head of this institution. Mark attests the longevity of the school to its adaptability. “It’s been able to adapt and survive because in many senses we’ve been innovative, had a number interesting projects going on simultaneously, like CEDEI School, the English Program, and International Programs, and at different times in our history each has picked up the slack of others when one has been going through a slower time…Having diversity has been best for us as far as adaptation.”

Difficulties include battles with the government over visas for English teachers, struggles that arise when forging bridges between cultures, and a steady turnaround of English and CEDEI School teachers who come for ine months and then transition to their next adventure. Laws change. The city shifts. These shifts are reflected in CEDEI School, in the students who come to study abroad, and the demographics of TEFL course participants and English Teachers.

In the past, CEDEI tailored its TEFL programs typically to young adults, recent college grads, or those on the verge of graduating. But recently, with the growing number of retirees or working professionals who want to learn a new skill set, the demographic of the TEFL participants has shifted.

“Our courses have regularly included a number of older adults — perhaps in their 40s or perhaps recently retired — who are looking for a different career that would allow them to engage with different cultures in meaningful ways,” says Bea.

There are many TEFL programs in the world, but CEDEI applies its mission of authentic culture-bridging to this program as well. Teachers are encouraged to live with host families if they don’t already have a home in Cuenca. Teachers in the TEFL program also get lots of experience in the classroom, teaching eight hours a week during the program.

Of the students who take the month-long course, Bea says all have different motivations. “Regardless of age, some TEFL students come with experience and/or preparation in second language education or in various aspects of Latin American culture. Others are completely new to teaching and have not traveled much. One of our finest students was a woman who had just retired from 30 years as a dental hygienist. Some come with definite goals — they know that they want to teach in Cuenca or they plan to teach English elsewhere — in China, for example. Others are exploring TEFL as a gateway to a number of opportunities around the world. Besides teaching at CEDEI, many of our students have taught in Argentina, Brazil, Thailand, South Korea, Germany … Some have earned Fulbrights scholalrshps, some have used their certificates teaching in the U.S. — in schools or immigration refugee centers.”

To learn more about taking the TEFL course, check out the contact info below. The next round of courses is July 10th-August 10th. The English Program as well looks for those with teaching experience or TEFL credentials. Teaching through the English Program is part-time, and courses begin in September. Being part of CEDEI is a challenge and a gift. Teaching is dynamic. There are always new problems that emerge. But there’s constant energy. CEDEI attracts those who want to be in a culture and dig into it, plant something deeper, watch it grow. It’s this mentality that has kept the doors open at CEDEI even in the face of constant changes.

In 26 years, the city that nurtured CEDEI since infancy has shifted dramatically. Now, there are thousands of expats living in Cuenca and dozens of restaurants and nightclubs to choose from on Friday and Saturday nights. You can find pumpkin lattes at Ñucallacta or fried chicken at Joe’s Secret Garden. You can listen to jazz at Jazz Society, dance like a maniac in Zoociedad, join book clubs, writing groups, Enneagram workshops, Young Expat events, ultimate frisbee hangouts, and more. These changes are reflections of cultural shifts. With more people come more ideas, restaurants, and practices from abroad. In a way, Cuenca has constructed its own cultural bridges, finding ways to bring in the outside world.

CEDEI’s mission of deep-diving into cultures is one that is nearly impossible to achieve. There is no quantitative end goal. In many ways, the mission of CEDEI has been achieved. CEDEI School brings students from different cultures together, the English Program has grown to serve hundreds of Ecuadorian students, the study abroad programs bring in students from all over the world. CEDEI hosts health fairs, community programs, book fairs, farmers markets, and art shows. But the mission of CEDEI is the steep trek up the beautiful hill to nonexistence. As Mark explains, the inevitable goal of a nonprofit is to solve a problem, to achieve the mission set forth and sink into the changes that were created. With CEDEI, the mission has not yet been achieved. It is vast in its scope. One wonders how, and if, truly authentic culture bridging ever be achieved. For now, CEDEI continues marching forward, aiming to create more places for authentic culture sharing. It continues to grow within this Andean city that has nurtured it, a city that firmly holds the past in one hand while the other hand opens, reaching toward the future.

For more information about CEDEI, see the foundation’s website at www.cedei.org