Skip to main content

Beginning with Kichwa

February 14, 2020


Monique Thormann

Kelsey Gilman PhD student in Ecuador
Jackson School Doctoral Student Kelsey Gilman on her summer study of Kichwa in Ecuador, 2019. Photo by Mateo Martínez

When Kelsey Gilman first heard she had received a national Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad Fellowship 2020-2021 to support 10 months of field research in Ecuador she immediately thought: “Wow, someone made a mistake, this was too good to be true.”

But it was as real as her growing up in Ballard, Washington to learning Kichwa, an Indigenous language spoken widely in South America, this past summer in the Amazonian province of Napo, Ecuador, thanks to receiving a 2019 Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund for Human Rights from the University of Washington’s Center for Human Rights and a 2019 Research and Travel Grant from the UW’s Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies.

And it is as real as her passion for learning and researching the politics of Indigenous higher education that led her to apply to the Jackson School’s international studies doctoral program, where she is currently a second-year student.

“The Jackson School offered a unique opportunity to pursue my passion and interests,” she says, noting in her searches for expert faculty on Latin American politics and Indigenous cultures in the Pacific Northwest two UW names kept popping up: Tony Lucero, Chair of Latin American & Caribbean Studies at the Jackson School, and María Elena García, Chair of Comparative History of Ideas. “I knew what I wanted to focus on, and wanted to explore it to the fullest.”

Pursuing a passion – and engaging a language
From an early age, Gilman knew she wanted to be involved in teaching and eventually became a high school history teacher. It was while pursuing her master’s degree in Latin American history that she discovered a case study about a decades-long struggle of a university in Ecuador involving Indigenous access to education that ignited her education.

“I felt it was a unique historical moment that the state [Ecuador] and Indigenous groups were really working together to try to create something [at the university level] that would be accessible to everyone, passion to learn about Indigenous higher especially Indigenous students who have largely been marginalized.”

Her research on the university in Ecuador also guided her as she helped prep high school students for college: “It made me question the politics of who gets to go or not go to college, who has the advantage of cultural capital versus who is starting from the basics.”

Her pursuit for inclusion did not stop there. Gilman discovered something else in her research: Most of the documents were in Spanish and written by Indigenous men who had had the opportunity to study abroad in Europe or the United States. “That inspired me to start learning Kichwa and begin the process to access those submerged perspectives from women, elders and communities who haven’t been able to be part of the conversation yet,” she says.

Training for her next project
With the support of the 2020-2021 Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad award, she is looking forward to returning to Quito next spring, and learning from and contributing to the dialogue of knowledge concerning Indigenous higher education in the Andes. She has already been formally invited by the Planning Committee for the Intercultural University of Indigenous Nationalities and Peoples of Ecuador, Amawtay Wasi (in Kichwa: the “House of Wisdom”) in the capital to participate in the process of re-developing the school, from planning through implementation.

She is aware of the impact of her background in research abroad. “As a white middle class scholar in the Global North researching Indigenous political movements in global South, there’s vast degrees of power differentiations,” she notes. “But I’m learning Kichwa in order to position myself as a learner, and I’m excited about what local communities can teach me.”

The Jackson School’s interdisciplinary approach toward international studies has also helped her learn important and effective social science skills, such as interviewing and qualitative methods that have broadened her research well beyond her training as a historian, she explains.

“Seattle is an exciting place to think globally about politics and current events, and the implications of these on our work,” she says.

From publishing an opinion piece on U.S.-backed aid to Venezuela in a global media outlet to being selected to study Kichwa by the UW Center for Human Rights 2019 Peter Mack and Jamie Mayerfeld Fund for Human Rights and the Fulbright-Hayes dissertation research award, she’s doing just that.