How often is it that your college offers you an all-expenses-paid trip to Costa Rica for spring break? No, not a vacation. A study abroad! In a week! As a first-year student! The opportunity of a lifetime.
You are probably asking how it is possible to study abroad in a week. That’s not what study abroad is. Or is it?
Wait, let me take a step back.
I decided to attend my college in part because it made study abroad so easy. I didn’t know where, but I knew I wanted to study abroad. My college life simply would not have been complete without it. This is a story that is very common: so many people say they want to study abroad, but few know what that means or entails. I sure didn’t. And in some ways, I still don’t.
The Pitzer College Class of 2017 was the first class to participate in the Institute for Global/Local Action and Study (IGLAS). Those of us in participating first-year writing seminars attended presentations every week, where we listened to our professors and guest speakers speak about their passions. At first, many did not understand why we were being forced to do this; it was an extra hour of class a week, and some felt that was wasted time. We had no idea what IGLAS was, what it represented, and what it meant that we were in it.
It was revealed to us that, if we opted into the program, we would have an opportunity to go to Costa Rica for spring break. Of course, there were conditions for this opportunity: we had to study abroad as Sophomores and we had to declare our major by Sophomore year. Mind you, we still had no idea what this program’s purpose was, but nineteen of my peers and I decided to take that risk. And it changed my life.
Fast forward to Platanillo, Costa Rica. All nineteen of us, plus twenty professors and administrators, were exhausted: we had had a red-eye flight for six hours, traveled on a bus from San Jose to Platanillo for another four, and had spent the entire day hiking in the Firestone Center. Not once that day was there time for Internet. Nodding off in the buses after what felt like a field trip, I craved a feathery pillow to pass out on. But it wasn’t that simple.
Our next stop was our host families.
One by one, our bus stopped, and names were called out. I was going to be sharing a host family with another guy on the trip, and our names were called near the very end. We got out, met our family of three (mom, dad, and nine-year-old son) and descended down the hill for twenty minutes. We didn’t make eye contact. It was their first time hosting, I learned, and our first time being hosted. After some small talk, we turned into the opening. Our jaws dropped.
There was a giant heart cut into the house.
It was three times the size of my house. It could have almost been a mini-mansion. The front was gazebo-like, with the heart staring you straight in the face. The porch, made of different hues of brown, was like the stage of an auditorium. The shrine to Jesus and the Virgin Mary took my breath away. Their living room was massive, benches lined against the sides of the house, two dining tables, and three sofas surrounding a TV. The ceilings were not completely attached to the walls, so you could see the the sky, the fluttering birds, and the gorgeous moon from inside the house. In the backyard there were thirty ducks, fifty chickens, two dogs, and an endless expanse of nature. If I went in one direction, I would no doubt be lost in the forest, with no chances of ever being found. And when they led me to my room, I couldn’t take it anymore: the bed was huge, and there was a fold out window that made me feel like Aurora from Sleeping Beauty. I was fighting back tears.
Mainly, though, because with exception of the plumbing, they made the entire house themselves. The furniture, the fabric blankets, taking care of the animals, and yes, they even built the house. It was all done by a fifty-year-old man, his fifty-year-old wife, and their three sons, two of whom had left the nest many years ago.
I could mention to you our conversations, the love they poured into their food, the way my host father lovingly stared into my host mother’s eyes every morning, and their commitment to helping others (they are building an orphanage), but really, all you need to know to see what amazing souls they are is their house. Their passion for nature, family, religion, and community astounded me.
The rest of the trip seemed to follow this pattern. We learned about ecotourism, the importance of nature, stress-management, theories of change, and taking care of ourselves. We also spent the day at Coopesilencio, swam in a waterfall, learned how to surf at Playa Dominical, ate incredible food, saw kids receiving their new desks for school, played fútbol with the community, and so much more. Our professors and administrators had organized many of these for us, and now we were sharing their passions with them outside of an academic setting. Really, it was all about discovering ourselves, love, and loving life. I learned something new about myself every day in Costa Rica.
What I learned from Study Abroad
There is a popular phrase in Costa Rica, and that ¡pura vida! The literal translation is “pure life,” but in context it can mean anything from “this is great!” to “full of life.”
This week of being abroad forced me out of a comfort zone that I did not know I was ready to leave. I am a city girl after all, and being essentially trapped in nature with no Internet, no cell phone, no urban living was a major change. I realized just how addicted to technology I was, and how little our society focuses on just enjoying what is in front of you instead of being productive 24/7.
More importantly, however, I learned that my idea of making a change was slightly warped. I dreamed of becoming a famous activist, maybe chaining myself to the White House at some point, and changing things on a macro-level. Of course, that is what idealists dream of, but goals that seem impossible are important to have. What changed in my mind, however, was the importance of even the smallest of changes in the smallest of communities. As long as you are really pouring your life into something, you can feel fulfilled. I saw it all around me in Costa Rica: in my professors’ work, my host family’s way of living, and in people’s eyes when they said ¡pura vida! Life isn’t sunshine and rainbows, but if you change what is in your control (and live in an absurdly humid country like Costa Rica), you sure can get close.
The Importance of Study Abroad
After the end of the trip, I finally realized what IGLAS was all about. Their goal is to get us to study abroad early (as Sophomores) so we could have these epiphanies much sooner in our college careers. If you study abroad your Junior year, you do not really have much time to take what you’ve learned and put it into practice, especially as Senior year approaches. Early study abroad means more time to implement global ideas into local communities. It is more time to leave a mark at your college, town, organization… and yourself.
But even if you don’t study abroad early, whether it is because it would be too soon or because your college makes it tough, there are so many years ahead of you. Years where you will be forced to be out of your comfort zone by meeting new people, being in a new environment, having to quickly learn new skills, all with the pressure to accomplish your dreams. While moving to college is often a student’s first taste of that, study abroad is a way to experience all that and more. You get pulled out of your society and see what life is like for other people. You do not try and “help” them or “change” them, because to do that is to close your mind to a new way of living. Neither your host culture nor your culture is perfect.
Study abroad is about engaging and becoming a part of a different culture so you can learn more about you and your society. Whether it is a week long or takes up several years, in the end, the effort you put in is what you will get: you can become a daughter or son, a global student, and a more enriched individual. It is an amazing opportunity, one that can change your life for the better.