Costa Rica: home away from home

Adam Poyner, Contributor

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To be unique means to be unlike anything else in existence. Though this powerful word can sometimes be overused, it is a perfect way to describe the University of New Orleans Costa Rica study abroad program. On the surface, it may look similar to many of the other outstanding summer abroad programs that the university offers; however, its many interesting details show that a trip to this beautiful country is unlike any other.

The Costa Rica program is usually the first to start; this year, it began on May 22, with 20 UNO students and one UNO alumnus arriving in San Ramon, Alajuela, Costa Rica. Participants live with host families in the community, not in dorms or apartments. For Melina Hamezopoulos, this was one of the highlights.

“I loved the fact that we lived with a host family, and it was an excellent way to sharpen my Spanish. I learned that the best way to truly learn a language is to be in the environment.”

The start of the program saw many lively conversations between students and families in varying levels of fractured Spanish or English.

While every Costa Rican program varies from year to year, this year, in particular, had a number of aspects that set it apart from past summers in San Ramon.

In addition to this being the summer of an election year in the U.S., it was also a summer of violence. On the morning of June 15, as UNO students were gathering on the bus to return to San Ramon from a weekend at Manuel Antonio National Park, I first heard the news of the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting. Just three short days after the event, news of the tragedy had spread across the world.

Not long after this act of hatred, I heard the news of another tragedy. In the Mexican state, Oaxaca, teachers protesting for increased education spending clashed with authorities. Eight people were killed, and many more were injured. But on Facebook, we saw little to no footage of screaming people fleeing from fires and explosions.

Many will often be quick to describe the positive impacts of traveling to another country, but it is also important to understand how the negative experiences can affect your world view.

The imbalance between the emphasis placed on these two terrible, violent attacks helped me to realize just how easy it is to become focussed on your own country’s, state’s, or community’s problems. In reality, everyone in the world is facing similar problems. We’re all feeling the same grief.

In addition to providing one with a fresh perspective on social and/or political events, a trip to Costa Rica is one of the best ways to learn about nature while also experiencing an incredible amount of biodiversity. Trees, flowers, monkeys, sloths, birds, reptiles, waterfalls, mountains, beaches, coffee, sugar farms – one can hardly take in the scope of all that Costa Rica has to offer.

Rachel Billiot-­Bruleigh took a trip to Tirimbina, a research center in northern Costa Rica. “During our time there, we took part in the bat program, a night walk through their forest trail, and a chocolate tour…. During the night tour, we saw fireflies… and a cicada coming out of its shell; the colors were something I didn’t expect to see in an insect. Many of us take for granted­ a bright sky blue and a light sea green.”  

Costa Rica is well known for its biodiversity and conservation efforts, something Billiot­-Bruleigh particularly appreciated about the country. She was also impressed by the respect given to indigenous groups.

“There were several museums that exhibited indigenous history within Costa Rica and an art gallery that promoted and sold indigenous art from reservations all over the country. In parks like Manuel Antonio or Tirimbina, the vendors and gift shops were specifically aimed at selling pieces by native artists. This kind of support and visibility isn’t often seen within the U.S., where people… often forget that native people are still a very real part of society, with stories, art, issues, and everyday livelihoods.”

This unique and celebrated piece of Costa Rican culture was thoughtfully woven into a somewhat-overlooked portion of the program: the classes. Students in Lisa Verner’s class, Magical Realism in Latin American Literature, welcomed a local card reader who shared a great deal about life in an indigenous Costa Rican tribe, far from modern technology and influence.
With many new things to see, do and learn, the 2016 Costa Rican program gave its participants many exciting opportunities to experience a unique country and its culture. Further information about the Costa Rica program and other unique UNO summer abroad programs can be found at  http://inst.uno.edu/summer.cfm

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