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Study Abroad in Costa Rica and Fall in Love with Your Education

by Emma Petersen

When I FaceTime my family and friends in the United States while I study abroad in Costa Rica, they repeatedly tell me how happy I look… how abundantly happy I look. A question follows that statement: “Why are you so happy?” I honestly answer, “My classes.”

Generally, they don’t believe me — at first. Then I explain, and they are able to empathize with my incredible joy for the education I’m gaining here.

Sure, an 8 AM Spanish class is difficult to get to, but “Tican time” allows for leniency. I have been 15 minutes late to class twice, and am generally at least 5 minutes late (even then just being the third person to arrive). I have even heard of people being over 45 minutes late. This is not to say that you should attempt to be late or be careless, but it is to say that the “pura vida” vibe doesn’t punish people for normal, human error. It is understanding.

And sure, my Spanish class is four hours long, five days a week. That’s why they call it “intensive.” But the teaching method here in Costa Rica is incredibly progressive, and the teachers actually follow it. We are constantly talking in class, asking questions, joking and laughing. The teacher is honest when she notices someone is distracted or sleepy, but not judgmental. She makes it a joke. I have learned so much Spanish only within two months and gained 10 Spanish credits. There are no tests, only presentations and homework. I have presented about Oprah (Orpah, apparently… look it up) Winfrey, Tennessee, Argentina, April Fool’s Day (Día de Los Inocentes), and pancakes entirely in Spanish.

Yes, I am sad that I cannot fit more classes into my schedule. This is said with sincerity.

I talk to my friends about the electives they are taking here and I’m jealous, but at the same time I would never switch out of mine because I love them also. I am taking Holistic Health Alternatives, Scuba Diving Certification, and Sustainable Development.

I am achieving goals I have held for a while since these classes are very inclusive and efficient. Yesterday in HH (Holistic Health), we had a lecture over aromatherapy then actually practiced it ourselves!

You really learn through experience here.

Next weekend, I will be going on a field trip for SD (Sustainable Development) to the only beach on Earth where sea turtle eggs are harvested for both scientific research and sale to the community, Playa Ostional. This area has a unique law allowing the harvesting of sea turtle eggs because there is an abundance of turtles who lay their eggs on the beach (1,000s) within a short time span, resulting in the death of the turtle eggs lain first by other turtles digging them up to lay there own in the same spot. To prevent this death being a waste, the percentage (30%) of the eggs that would be destroyed anyway are dug up to either be aided to survive, researched, or sold to aid the local community’s economy.

The next weekend I will be going to Coco Beach to become a certified scuba diver after diving with jellyfish, seahorses, coral, and fish. There will also be a high probability of seeing sharks, whales, etc.! The costs of these field trips are included within the cost of the course… no extra expense necessary! They are a part of the learning experience, a part of the class.

Not only is there a variety of amazing classes and opportunities within each class if you study abroad in Costa Rica, but there are also phenomenal volunteer and internship opportunities.

The source of greatest stress here for me — besides culture shock — has been deciding what to pick and put into my schedule outside of class. I’ve decided to volunteer with a local children’s hospital (one of many, many options… others shown below), and I have been working in the Veritas Biomol Biology Laboratory at the university.

In such a short span of time, I have been included and integrated into this family of scientists who have kindly taught me how to extract, quantify, dilute DNA, perform PCRs, etc. I have worked on many projects since starting, but most recently I’ve been working with confiscated shark fins from the Peruvian government. The Biomol director, Sebastian, has invited all of the interns to perform field work and even go to help at a conference later in the year. I am constantly stunned by the inclusivity of the culture here in Costa Rica and the trust for others. I will also begin learning how to garden sustainably and make my own food with the on-campus gardener.

If these abundant educational options don’t satisfy or inspire you to study abroad in Costa Rica, the AIFS Resident Directors, Karla and Catalina, can help. They are not only staff here, but are our sincere friends. When we make a mistake, they hold us accountable but then share a similar experience and empathy. If there’s a problem to be solved, they’ll find a solution. There weren’t any volunteer options for environmental work mentioned originally, so I asked Karla what could be done. She then listed multiple options and said that she could look up more if I needed. Some other volunteer opportunities she presented to me were:

  • Working with victims of HIV/AIDS
  • Working with orphans
  • Teaching schoolchildren English
  • Aiding recycling
  • Working in an elderly home
  • Helping a therapist or psychiatrist
  • Feeding, cleaning the cages of, etc in a zoo
  • Create your own project! Karla and Catalina are great sources of support.

Volunteering abroad is only one example of how you can use your time here, though. If you study abroad in Costa Rica, it can be a moldable experience based on your own goals and desires. Costa Rica has an opportunity for everyone.

There is a love for education here. A love for putting meaning to one’s words through action. I have a love for this culture, this country, this school, this program. Thank you, AIFS.

This post was contributed by Emma Petersen, who is spending her fall semester studying abroad with AIFS in San José, Costa Rica. 

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