Meet a Center Director: Costa Rica

Posted: February 23, 2015

What brought you to be a Center Director?
I served as the Tropical Ecology faculty for 6 years before moving into the Center Director position. By training, I am a plant physiological ecologist with interests on multivariate statistics. Being a scientist is different from being an administrator, but I wanted to develop the SFS Center in Costa Rica in new directions. In addition of consolidating our academic program, I wanted the Center to be a model farm and an effective research institution to generate information about the management and conservation of natural resources for our clients in Costa Rica (national parks, protected areas, and local communities) so that our students could get not only an authentic educational and research experience, but leave behind a positive footprint on the country.

What are some unique aspects of your city and country?
The Center is located in the town of Atenas, just 40 minutes away from the airport and the capital city of San Jose, and about 1 hour away from the nearest national parks (Poás Volcano in the Central Mountain Slope and Carara along the Pacific coast). Atenas has only 20,000 inhabitants, but despite of being small, it has all the basic services. It maintains a very traditional Costa Rican community, with coffee farms covering 40% of the area. Here, students can see a representative part of Costa Rican rural communities, traditional coffee production, and the celebration of local holidays like Independence Day and the ox-cart parade. Atenas also has a very diverse international community.

This area of Costa Rica presents some of the most pressing problems of the country as a whole, such as water production and conservation, urban expansion, waste management, and conflicts between these issues and biodiversity conservation. Costa Rica has maintained a leading tradition of democracy and political stability in Latin American as well as of biodiversity protection. It is also one of the most biodiverse countries in the Neotropics with about 5% of the estimated number of the world’s species concentrated here.

In terms of running a program like ours, these conditions have many advantages. Field trips could span strikingly different ecosystems in one day. Students can compare and contrast different agricultural models and different community profiles superimposed on different ecological conditions. This is an ideal country to study environmental issues and analyze the balance between biodiversity conservation with economic growth.

What is one thing most of your students may not know about you?
I spent one year at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Costa Rica studying history of art before switching to biology. I have an artistic side, and still do a bit of pastel and water color painting. I can also do cartoons, and have illustrated a children´s book. I did a bit of scientific drawing as an undergraduate student at the Biology Department at the University of Costa Rica.

What are some of your favorite aspects of being a Center Director?
Observing the transformation of our students from when they first come to the Center to how much they change and have learned from the program before they leave is very rewarding. Students could move on to graduate school, or to jobs that include an environmental component, so you can see that the program has had a critical impact on them.

What are some of the challenges of your job?
This is mostly a balancing act. This goes across the board in terms of making sure the program works in all aspects. We plan our semester way ahead of time, looking at lecture schedules, community outreaches, field trips, and our week-long excursion in Nicaragua. A program this complex is not an easy feat to accomplish. It requires experience and teamwork. Keeping a good team is critical for the program: the consistency of the educational quality we provide, and the professional development not only of our faculty, but of all our staff members. We are talking about a staff of 17 people, 9 of which function to support the program in terms of maintenance, cleaning, and cooking. It takes a long time and effort to form a good team.

What have you seen as the biggest challenge for incoming students?
This is a residential and very structured program. Students need to adjust to community living. They compromise to change certain behaviors for the benefit of the internal community, and abide by the “sustainability contract” (which a previous group of students proposed a few years back). Implementing these changes (improving recycling, water, and electricity use, for instance) could be hard, representing a compromise and a more conscious awareness on the consequences of our actions on the capacity of our planet to provide services. Being less resource-demanding does not mean a decrease in our quality of life. Being closer to nature has multiple benefits that improve your perspective on life. Unplugging from the internet and decreasing the use of your gadgets and social networks is also a big challenge for many students.

What is your advice for students planning to attend your program, or to study abroad in your country?
Be open to new experiences; do not have preconceived expectations because every session is different and unique. What you positively learn from this will affect your life in the long-term.

What is one thing you think students shouldn’t forget to pack for life in your country?
A good pair of binoculars and a digital camera.

Why do you think is the most important take-away for education abroad students?
Humankind is very consistent across the board. We have an amazing capacity for ecological and cultural adaptation. However, we also have a puzzling aptitude to repeat the same mistakes. Learning that deep inside, across cultural borders, we are all the same, and have invented ingenious ways to adjust to challenging ecological conditions (hopefully without repeating the same mistakes) is the key to a more sustainable future. Respecting and appreciating the diversity of ways to relate to nature is something you cannot learn from textbooks. You need to step outside your comfort zone and see the world.