Top Takeaways for a Manna Project Program Director

Being a Manna Project Program Director and working with underserved communities in Ecuador has been such a challenging, yet rewarding and incredible experience. After finishing my time with Manna Project in Ecuador, there are infinite things that I have learned about myself, international development, Ecuador, and more. Here are some of my top takeaways from my experience with Manna Project:

8. Patience

Part of moving abroad to any country or region is adjusting to all the cultural differences that you might not be used to from home. One of those major cultural differences between the United States and countries in Latin America is the difference in punctuality and scheduling. Here a meeting that was scheduled for 9:30 might not start until 10:00, or a bus might be an hour late and no one would think twice about it. Living in Ecuador and adjusting to this change has made me much more patience, and I've even come to see the beauty in taking my time doing things that matter, and enjoying the day.

Beyond just patience with cultural differences like punctuality, I have also learned how to be more patience with myself and others. Adjusting to a new culture, a new language, and a new environment can be emotionally draining, and I've learned throughout that process to give myself the time and space I need to respond well to difficult situations.

7. Becoming a Leader

There are endless leadership opportunities that Program Directors have during their time with Manna Project. From leading programs solo or with a group of fellow Program Directors or short-term volunteers, to leading and developing new events and projects, there is no doubt that Program Directors will take away new leadership skills no matter what! One of the most meaningful leadership experiences for me has been leading short-term volunteer Spring Break groups. Before leading my first group I had never worked on budgets or managed short-term volunteers before, but my diving in headfirst I learned new skills and gained confidence in my own leadership abilities.

The Spring Break 2015 volunteers from Vanderbilt University that I led worked on various project during their time in Ecuador, including working on a mural at a local preschool.

The Spring Break 2015 volunteers from Vanderbilt University that I led worked on various project during their time in Ecuador, including working on a mural at a local preschool.

6. Meeting Like-Minded People

When incoming Program Directors gather in Miami in July for their orientation, they meet a group of strangers that are about to become their best friends and companions in their unique experience of living and volunteering abroad with Manna Project. It is an incredible feeling to be surrounded by like-minded people experiencing the same things as you: you will find in your fellow PDs support, encouragement, travel buddies, and life-long friends.

5. Travel, Travel, Travel!

Before coming to Ecuador I had already traveled a lot in Latin America, but spending a year living in Ecuador gave the chance to truly see everything the country has to offer. While I focused on traveling throughout Ecuador, other PDs use the opportunity to travel to places like Machu Picchu, Colombia, Patagonia, and other locations in Latin America that are unmissable. Ecuador and the rest of South America are so rich in beautiful beaches, soaring mountains, ancient ruins, and more, and using Ecuador as a home base for your travels is an incredible way to see it all.

One of South America's most beautiful sights, the Quilotoa Crater Lake in Ecuador! 

One of South America's most beautiful sights, the Quilotoa Crater Lake in Ecuador! 

4. Learning (or Mastering!) a New Language

Being immersed in Spanish during your time with Manna Project will help you grow leaps in bounds, whether you arrive on-site as a beginner or already knowing a lot of Spanish! That's not to say that it won't be challenging to become fluent- it requires a lot of hard work and dedication whether you are studying it in college or living abroad and using it every day. However, being able to speak Spanish daily and learn new words and phrases from your new friends will help you immensely! Your Spanish skills will help you develop relationships with community members, and is a skill you can take with you wherever you go after your time with Manna Project comes to an end.

3. Professional Development Opportunities

My time with Manna Project has helped me grow from being a recent college graduate into a confident young professional. Manna Project offers Program Directors the opportunity to get involved in organizational roles like grant research and writing, social media, volunteer recruitment, and much more. I am leaving Manna Project feeling confident that I have the skills to help me find an impactful job in the non-profit sector. Check out this video where I talk more about the professional development opportunity for Manna Project Program Directors.

2. Cross-Cultural Relationships

One of the most precious aspects of the Program Director experience is certainly the ability to work closely with community members and form meaningful relationships with them. The community members we work with are always so inviting to Program Directors and strive to make them feel welcomed in the community. Incoming Program Directors spend time in homestays when they first arrive on-site, and often become close with their homestay families for the rest of their time there. I will miss the MPI community members I have gotten to know while I have been in Ecuador, along with other friends I have made along the way. Having built so many relationships here has made my experience so much more meaningful, but it also makes leaving very bittersweet!

In Ecuador, locals celebrate the Carnival holiday by taking to the streets and "playing," spraying each other with water, throwing eggs, flour, and colored dies, and playing with small fire extinguisher-like canisters that spray foam everywhere!

In Ecuador, locals celebrate the Carnival holiday by taking to the streets and "playing," spraying each other with water, throwing eggs, flour, and colored dies, and playing with small fire extinguisher-like canisters that spray foam everywhere!

1. You'll Never Be the Same!

As corny as it may sound, your year in Ecuador or Nicaragua with Manna Project will stay with you forever. The experience of living abroad, the experience of working in community development, the experience of traveling and speaking a different language...they are all unique experiences that will change you forever. You will learn so much about yourself, others, and the world around you that you will never forget, and you will always have a different outlook on life because of it. To our incoming Program Directors and all those to come in the future...savor every minute of your experience! It will be one of the best, most impactful years of your life!