Two Northeastern students on co-op. One faraway country. Here’s how they’re making a difference in Ecuador

group of Ecuadorians sitting in a circle on stools
Aaron Denberg, a third-year Northeastern student, is doing his co-op with Manna Project International in Ecuador. Courtesy photo

When Aaron Denberg was researching where to go for his co-op, he didn’t anticipate traveling more than 3,000 miles to a remote community in the mountainous suburbs of Quito, Ecuador. 

But, as it happened, that’s where Denberg, a third-year Northeastern student, found himself.

Denberg has spent the spring 2023 semester working for Manna Project International, a U.S.-based nonprofit that focuses on providing underserved communities worldwide with support through education, health, leadership and economic development. 

A cultural anthropology major on a pre-law track, Denberg briefly considered going the way of many aspiring attorneys to co-op at a law firm in Boston or New York City—a safe way to burnish his resume by gaining more traditional work experience. But the opportunity to travel abroad brought with it the possibility of acquiring new skills, working directly with local communities and other “culturally immersive” experiences. 

“And just the fact that it’s in Ecuador—a place I’ve never been before, on a continent I’ve never been before,” Denberg says.

Just weeks before he was set to fly to the South American country, which is home to just under 18 million people, he learned he would be joined by another Husky—Brecker Ferguson, who is studying business administration and environmental and sustainability sciences. 

Since arriving in Quito—the country’s capital—earlier this year, the pair have been living and working together.  

Denberg says he spends the majority of his time teaching English, researching grant opportunities and helping organize community events. In his spare time, he travels the country, trying out local cuisines and meeting as many Ecuadorians as possible. 

Ferguson similarly expressed interest in community-based work. 

“I was looking for all different kinds of co-ops given my fairly broad interests,” Ferguson says. 

Ferguson says he had a lot of “really great interviews” with other international organizations, including one in Chile, but felt compelled by the package on offer at Manna Project International. 

Brecker Ferguson posing with another person next to a river
Northeastern student Brecker Ferguson (left). Courtesy Photo

“I decided on Manna Project because, in speaking with my supervisor down here … it seems like the organization gives a lot of autonomy to program directors and volunteers to kind of follow their own interests and speak their own voice and have a really direct impact on the community,” he says. 

So far, Ferguson says the work has been “pretty dynamic”—a mix of teaching English to adults and youth; leading a music program for senior citizens that he pitched himself; and helping with more broader operational tasks related to social media and marketing. 

“I have a little bit of a musical background myself, so that has been a really rewarding project,” Ferguson says. 

The two Northeastern students also spent a chunk of time living with a local family during separate homestays—a boon to the pair’s bilingualism, and an opportunity to personalize their co-op experience. 

But the greatest challenge both Denberg and Ferguson have had a hand in is the organization’s effort to move sites from its suburban location into the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, a low-lying region in the eastern part of the country that is home to a wide variety of mammals, fish and reptiles—not to mention human beings. The company’s board of directors decided to move its operations, Ferguson says, because the current location simply wasn’t attracting volunteers. 

“There’s been a lot of back-and-forth discussion on the board’s decision,” Ferguson says. 

The local village that would house the new site belongs to the indigenous population, Denberg says. The new facility, which is approximately four hours away from where the pair currently work, would include office space, housing and other administrative buildings. 

“That area of the Amazon feels like a completely different country than where I am right now,” Denberg says. “There’s a completely different set of issues to deal with. It’s like a country within a country.”

Ferguson says he and the program directors have been meeting with local community leaders there to brainstorm potential project ideas. The prospect of working on local issues at the new site excites him, and “aligns with [his] interests in sustainability and environmentalism.”

Ferguson will also be working with a Northeastern business professor to draft an academic case study based on his trip in which he would write needs assessments to better evaluate the types of projects that would benefit some of these local communities.  

The pair are set to wrap up their co-op over the summer. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.