My days of traveling solo ended on Monday as I was off to the airport—not to fly out but instead to pick up 30 new friends. Nervousness bubbled through everyone as we attempted to meet each other over piles of carry-on baggage, through jet lag, and amidst the confusion of cancelled flights due to recent snowstorms.

Atenas is a relatively small and agricultural town located less than an hour from San Jose, the capital city. This gives Atenas an opportunity to hold on to an authentic feel as many parts of the country progress and become increasingly more western: Atenas does not have all the skate shops of San Jose, nor the clutter of endless souvenir shops and overly priced goods that could be found in other areas of Costa Rica.

Atenas does have friendly people that wish you well as you run by, stores for groceries and farm goods, beautiful churches, and a central park with a map that displays many of the establishments in the area. This map includes The School for Field Studies Center, only a few walkable kilometers away.

When I stepped off the bus at the Center, I finally felt as if I was experiencing what I imagined Costa Rica to be: groves of fruit trees, space for recreation (mainly soccer), audible cicadas and crickets, and windy dirt paths along the tropical forest. I felt peaceful rather than removed, and at home among so many new faces.

Our days at the Center did not even have a chance to find any sort of rhythm before we were off to our first field trip: hiking among plants and animals at Braulio Carrillo National Park, visiting and helping at an organic farm called El Progreso, and touring a Dole plantation.

Through the diversity of the information presented so far, I feel incredibly thankful of the overall optimistic message given by my professor and mentors in the program. There has already been great contrast: from the humidity of the rainforest of Braulio Carrillo to the tropical dry forest of Atenas, from El Progreso to Dole, from the serious concerns of fellow students to the positive passion of the professors. But each of these differences makes this experience feel rich already.