Cassidy Galapa-Goes Abroad

Student Pursues Passion while Volunteering in Galapagos Islands

Of all the lessons Cassidy Grubisic learned while volunteering abroad in Isabela Island, Ecuador, that was one of the most important. A touch of the metal while showering and she would have been electrocuted. 

Grubisic ended up on Isabela, the largest of the Galapagos Islands, after looking for a cost-efficient way to study abroad. During her eight weeks on the island, she volunteered for the Intercultural Outreach Initiative (IOI). The organization supports communities in Ecuador and Cuba by protecting their environments through conservation projects. Grubisic’s role was to gather content for their social media. 

Just getting to the island wasn’t easy, though. It was Grubisic’s first time traveling outside of the United States. That alone is hard enough. But it took three flights, two ferry rides, and an hour-long taxi ride to reach the small fishing village of Puerto Villamil where Grubisic would spend the summer of 2021. And once she reached her destination, she wasn’t sure if she could adjust to life on the island—regardless of whether she could tough the showerhead.

“I wanted to go home pretty much immediately,” Grubisic said. “It was really hard because my host family didn’t speak any English, and my Spanish is sketchy at best.”

The culture shock hit Grubisic harder than expected. She navigated conversations with locals armed with her Spanish minor and Google Translate. She tried to feel at home living with a family of strangers. Grubisic even sacrificed her vegetarian diet. The once-a-month shipments of food to Isabela from mainland Ecuador were without the vegetable staples she was accustomed to eating. 

“I tried to keep the expectation that things are going to be different, but that doesn’t mean things are going to be worse,” Grubisic said. 

Grubisic’s host family was determined to help her adapt. They immediately adopted her into the family by taking her to birthday parties and on Sunday trips to their farm in the highlands. On Grubisic’s third night in Isabela, she found herself playing with their five-year-old granddaughter. 

“She wanted to color and draw and play rock paper scissors and all of these things that reminded me of my little cousins,” Grubisic said. “I just remember that making me feel so much more at home.”

Slowly, Grubisic found herself adjusting to the routine of life on Isabela. She spent the first half of her days snapping images of cerulean blue water, vivid greenery, and photogenic animals for IOI’s social media accounts. After, she went to lunch with the eight other volunteers and explored the island. Grubisic focused on doing one new thing a day to keep herself from getting homesick.

“Sometimes tourism is really easy because you go somewhere and there are already people that look like you and talk like you and it’s easy to just do what you would normally do at home,” said Monique Mancilla, IOI International Programs Manager. “Isabela is a place where it’s just so remote and you have to make new friends, you have to make an effort to speak the language.”

Grubisic is now back in the United States with a portfolio of Galapagos photography to showcase her skills. She aims to work for National Geographic where her love of history, nature, and journalism intersect.

“I feel very passionate about the environment,” Grubisic said. “In order for me to feel fulfilled, I need to do something to help inspire people, especially future generations, to help rehabilitate and protect what we have left.”

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