Ecuador opened doors for anthropology professor

Like many undergraduate students, David Kneas studied abroad during his college experience. But Kneas never expected his semester away to change the entire course of his study.

As a biology and Spanish double major, Kneas recalls walking into the study abroad office of DePauw University, a small liberal arts college in Indiana, and asking, "where in Spain should I go?" because he thought Spain was his only option to study Spanish.

Due to Kneas' environmental interests and his pre-med track, a study abroad adviser recommended a program in Ecuador instead.

His trip took him around the country to different homestays for a semester while he learned about natural environments and environmental problems. The program ended with him on his own for one month completing an independent research study.

Kneas settled in northwestern Ecuador, assisting with environmental education in a school. During this time, he was exposed to proposed copper mining and the local opposition to it, which fascinated him.

After working at a reserve in Ecuador for several years, Kneas went back to school, this time to Yale University, to receive a master's degree in environmental science and a Ph.D. in a combined anthropology and environmental studies program. He did his master's research and his dissertation on the copper mining conflict he saw there.

But according to Kneas, this change in direction wasn't direct.

"It wasn't that I was there and thought, 'Oh, I should study anthropology,' " Kneas says. "It just showed me that I wanted to do something different, that I didn't want to go to med school, that I didn't want to get a traditional job after undergraduate."

Now, after having lived in Ecuador for about five years, going back to visit every summer, publishing articles about the area and having all of his research based there, Kneas believes he's built a lifelong connection with Ecuador.

"I suspect I'll kind of always go back. I think now I've developed lots of relationships with people there," Kneas says. "The more I learn about the area there and its history, the more questions it raises."

Through his research, Kneas connects the current mining conflict to the broader history of the region. Kneas believes the research he has done in Ecuador is significant in part because of the unusual success of the local opposition to the mining, and he believes his findings are noteworthy in terms of resource extraction.

"I'm showing how that a lot of the stories we tell fail to capture the nuances actually there on the ground," Kneas says.

Kneas now brings his past experiences in Ecuador to the courses he teaches at the University of South Carolina, and he believes his approach to teaching is influenced by his research and those understandings.

He also encourages students to take advantage of study abroad opportunities, especially if they entail a break from routines and offer the opportunity to discover new people and settings.

"Do something that's exciting and fun and sort of potentially rewarding and then worry about requirements later," Kneas said. "One of those things about semesters abroad is it really can expose you to things you're interested in that you didn't really know about. "

Kneas approached study abroad wanting to improve his Spanish, and Ecuador provided him with new reasons for learning the language as well as interest in a new career path.

"I wasn't just studying it, but to do anything I really had to learn how to speak. I had different motivation for it," Kneas said. "I wasn't just studying Ecuador; I was also studying this more intricate history of the developing world. I think it really just broadened my horizons of the world out there in a way."

Learn more

To learn about opportunities to study around the world, visit UofSC's Study Abroad website.

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