Students in the Lehigh Launch program live in Quito, Ecuador while taking four classes and participating in experiential learning activities such as group excursions. (Photo courtesy of Lehigh University)

Eleven students spend their first semester abroad in Ecuador


Eleven first-year students had an unconventional start to their college experience, studying abroad in Ecuador through the Lehigh Launch program.

Yandel Santos, ‘26, already had his eyes set on Lehigh, but once he saw this program, applying was a “no brainer.” He was looking for an opportunity to expand his cultural knowledge and help him become a more well-rounded person. 

“I was hoping to become more culturally in tune with the world and experience different things,” Santos said.

Jennifer Jensen, deputy provost for academic affairs, said Lehigh Launch was started in the fall of 2020 but was put on pause in the fall 2020 semester due to fast rising cases of COVID-19.

Students in the Ecuador program live in Quito, Ecuador. Jensen said students get to explore the Amazon and spend time in the Galapagos Islands.

The students take four classes: an anthropology class and a first year seminar taught by Lehigh Professor David Casagrande, a biology class and a Spanish course.

Casagrande said the curriculum balances traditional class work with excursions. Students frequently spend Fridays at museums and historical sites within Quito to expand their knowledge of the area.  

Casagrande said the students often plan trips together outside of scheduled excursions. For one, all 11 students spent a weekend white water rafting.

The students also partake in longer overnight trips. Casagrande said the group flew from Quito to Coca, a small city near the Amazon Rainforest, and spent five days learning about the biodiversity of the area after taking a two-hour boat ride into the forest. 

“I absolutely love it,” Casagrande said. “I love the people, food, climate, plants and animals. Is there anything else you can love?” 

Olivia Lundquist, ‘26, said the social aspect of the program has been the most formative for her.  

“I feel like I’ve made lifelong friends,” Lundquist said. “We all feel like we have known each other all our lives, when we have only known each other for a couple of months.”

Participants of the program are seen birdwatching in the Amazon Rainforest. The group flew from Quito to Coca, a small city near the Amazon, and spent five days learning about the biodiversity of the area after taking a two-hour boat ride into the forest. (Photo courtesy of Lehigh University).

With the exception of a few students, many of the freshmen either didn’t know how to speak Spanish or had limited knowledge of the language. 

“At first I was a bit anxious about studying abroad in Ecuador because I’m not fluent in Spanish, but my host mom and I usually communicate through Google Translate,” Aliyah McNeil, ‘26, said. “I definitely would not let the language barrier be a drawback from studying abroad in Ecuador.”

The program is open to all first-year students when applying to Lehigh. 

Jensen said, in addition to the general Lehigh application, prospective students must complete a supplemental application, which includes a separate interview process and additional essays.  

“We are looking for students who have outstanding leadership potential,” Jensen said. “We want to find those students and allow them to really jumpstart some of the things you wind up doing as a junior.”

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