International experience: Internship in Ecuador
UCLA undergraduate Sofia Van Cleve. (Photo: Kevin Sprague/ UCLA.)

International experience: Internship in Ecuador

When Sofia Van Cleve wasn't counting monkeys and mapping coffee farms during her summer internship, she explored the jungles and beaches of coastal Ecuador.

"I still can't believe that counting monkeys was really my job!"

by Kevin Sprague (UCLA 2018)

Student:   Sofia Van Cleve, UCLA 2018
Major:      International Development Studies
Program: Internship at Asogrita Coffee Co-Op, Ecuador, Summer 2017

I spent the summer interning with Asoagrita, a coffee co-op in Tabuga, a tiny village in Manabi Province in coastal Ecuador. I worked every day from 8 am to 5 pm, primarily using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) to map land. I would go up to individual farmers working in a coffee co-op and interview them about their farming practices, then use a GIS device to map their plots.

I had to learn how to use GIS, which I didn't know how to do. I made maps to estimate how many coffee beans each farm would yield so we could project how big the harvest would be. The internship was difficult and crazy, but it was so cool! I felt like I was applying all of the theories I'd been learning in my classes. Last quarter, I had been reading articles in my IDS classes about the lives of low-income farmers in Latin America and now I was sitting at their kitchen tables, eating fish that they fried for me. It was surreal.

I’m an International Development Studies major and my department recommends students participate in some sort of international study abroad or internship experience. My friends in the IDS program pointed me towards the Muriel F. Siebert Scholarship, which got me really interested in going abroad for the summer. Also, I have a travel bug and really wanted to visit South America to practice the Spanish I've been studying at UCLA for the last three years!

Most enjoyable experiences
There was a beautiful ocean town really close to us on the coast of Ecuador. I’d barely ever surfed before, but by the end of the summer, I was surfing all the time. I also ziplined in the rainforest, and at work I even got to meet some monkeys. Part of my internship was very exciting: I would walk around the forest looking for monkeys, marking “OK, that one's a male, that one's a female—what's their age, what are they doing?” I still can't believe that counting monkeys was really my job!

At work, we didn't have electricity, Wifi or warm water for showers after 5 pm. We would read by candlelight, bring a headlamp to the bathroom and take freezing cold showers. It was definitely not what I was used to, but it made for an interesting experience.

Impact on future career & education
Before the internship, I didn’t know anything about the production side of the coffee industry. I'm a barista, so I knew how to brew coffee and how to sell it to consumers, but I didn't know how to identify the different types of coffee beans or how humidity factors into coffee making.

I learned what the markers that companies put on coffee labels—such “fair-trade” and “organic”—really mean. I was also doing research to see if the co-op I volunteered with could qualify for those labels in the future. [In the future,] I'd love to work for Fair Trade, or Rainforest Alliance or [a similar] organization doing what I did in Ecuador every day this summer.

Advice for UCLA undergrads
I think everyone should participate in study abroad or work in another country if they can, this experience was so great. I would especially recommend my fellow International Development Studies students apply for the Muriel F. Siebert Scholarship. The funding and guidance that it provided made my internship in Ecuador this past summer possible and I’m extremely grateful to the UCLA International Institute for that. The university provides incredible opportunities to see the world which we, as UCLA students, have to take advantage of!