(Posted January 25, 2010)

HUNTINGDON, Pa. -- In general, most college students consider it adventurous if they spend four years studying in another state. The journey to college for Robert Granja, a freshman international student at Juniata College from Ecuador, included a trip in a dugout canoe and a flight out of a South American rainforest.

Granja, who grew up in a small village called Mondana situated along the Napo River, a tributary of South America's mighty Amazon River, will spend his entire freshman year of college at Juniata. Although his home village in the middle of the Ecuadorean rainforest has a population of about 150, Granja finds the larger environs of the Juniata campus different, but welcoming.

"I would like to organize youth in our community and other places to have a better life through sustainability and conservation. Our youth is the future (of Ecuador)."

Robert Granja, Juniata international student

"Juniata is very big compared to where I studied before and the educational system is completely different." says Granja, who attended a government-run high school in Puerto Napo, a city of about 10,000. "In the Ecuadorean system, you memorize the lessons and you don't discuss things with the teacher or professor.

"When I first came here I was afraid to talk at first because my English was not very good, but day by day I became more involved," he adds. "Since Juniata is not a big college I get to interact with many people and become more involved in student (activities)."

The 19-year-old student considers himself lucky to be studying at Juniata because Ecuador's government is reluctant to grant visas to students studying abroad for more than one year. This policy is intended to induce talented Ecuadorean students to stay in their native country to work and build a career.

Granja's own story of coming to Juniata is equal parts hard work and good luck. He attended the government-run school in Puerto Napo through high school and then returned to his village to participate in a new school created by the Yachana Foundation. Called Yachana Lodge, the school combines practical instruction in agronomy, animal husbandry, microenterprise businesses, conservation and tourism. Last year, several Juniata students who were studying abroad at St. Francis University in Quito, Ecuador visited the Yachana school in Mondana. The school's director established a connection with Juniata to encourage students to study in Huntingdon for a year. One of the students to visit the school, Nathan Anderson, a senior at Juniata from Denver, Colo., is now Granja's roommate. Granja also has a host family, Fred and Mary Kay Eichelman, of Huntingdon.

"Most of the students in Ecuador go to school through eighth grade, but after that it becomes harder because you have to pay for food, books and other expenses. You have to hope for a scholarship," Granja explains. "I never thought it was possible to study at a college like Juniata, but I had a high level of English (fluency), so they chose me to come."

After his stay at Juniata, Granja would like to continue his education in order to return to his village to teach sustainability and conservation at the foundation school. The residents have a small tourism industry and grow crops such as cacao, corn, plantains and yucca (also known as cassava or manioc root). The villagers also hunt to supplement their diet. The villagers usually hunt tapirs (a pig-like animal), wild pigs and agouti and capybara (large rodents).

"The community shares most of the food," Granja says of his village. "It reminded me of Thanksgiving, which I attended with my host family, where the family comes together to share."

So far, Granja has acclimated to Juniata's culture and cuisine, particularly the desserts at the college dining hall. He still hasn't totally accepted Pennsylvania's cooler climate. His village, set in the rainforest, varies in temperature from 78 to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, but he's found a heavy coat and winter boots to weather the Pennsylvania winter experience.

After his year at Juniata, Granja hopes to continue his studies at an Ecuadorean university in ecology and conservation, although he is seeking a scholarship to pay for his education. He then hopes to return to his home province to work as an educator.

"I would like to organize youth in our community and other places to have a better life through sustainability and conservation," he says. "Our youth is the future (of Ecuador)."

Contact April Feagley at feaglea@juniata.edu or (814) 641-3131 for more information.