First Impressions of SFS Costa Rica

Posted: September 15, 2015

Why did you choose to study abroad with SFS?
When I was 17, I left North America for one of the first times in my life destined for South Africa and Mozambique. This trip provided me with a wealth of experiences including exposure to wonderfully diverse cultures and landscapes, community outreach in a foreign country, and the harsh realities of developing nations. I was left with the incessant desire to travel, experience more of the diversity of the world, and work to create a positive impact in places of poverty and struggle.

I chose the University of Denver, in part, because it has an incredible study abroad program, which would enable me to pursue these experiences. When the time came for me to research and apply to programs, SFS stood out amongst the rest for the following reasons. Firstly there were programs in both Costa Rica and Panama, which would allow me to study in a Spanish speaking country. I have always wanted to learn another language, and I finally fell in love with Spanish after taking my first class in college. Secondly SFS is an environmental program, which would allow me not only to study something I am truly passionate about but would also give me the field experience that I was unable to gain in the classroom back in Denver. Finally, SFS involves participating in community outreach and research projects. I really want to leave a positive impact on the community that I am studying in and gaining so much from. I also would like to participate in research that will benefit the local community, as well as provide me with new skills and ultimately a finished product that would help me reach my academic and professional goals in the future.

What are your first impressions of the country?
Costa Rica is more breathtakingly beautiful than I could have ever hoped for. From the moment that my plane descended below the admittedly thick cloud cover I was blown away by the intensely green landscape of mountains and jungles. San Jose was fairly overwhelming, complete with large concrete structures and buildings, an extremely high humidity percentage, and a chorus of taxi drivers and travelers speaking in rapid Spanish. Once we were out of the city I was able to truly embrace and appreciate the tropical green forests and land that surrounded me. We also had the opportunity to travel to the rainforest in Braulio Carrillo National Park and a sustainable farm in the Limon province this past weekend, which only increased our exposure to the wonderful diversity of Costa Rica’s mountains, forests, and wildlife. I have already seen several monkeys, a scorpion, a pit viper, a fer de lance, and many species of birds. We have not made it to the beach yet, but I can only imagine how incredible it will be.

In terms of the culture, I have met only the friendliest of people. We were able to experience how strong the family bond is here in Costa Rica during our visit to the sustainable farm in the Limon Province. The farm is run by a family who are extremely loyal to one another and the farm despite their career paths or current living situation in terms of proximity to the farm. It was also very moving and indicative of the current culture of Costa Rica to hear Nuria, one of the owners of the farm, speak so eloquently and passionately about the pressing environmental issues of our time both in Costa Rica and the world in general. The large gates and bars over many of the windows in La Presa, Atenas, and the rest of the towns and cities I observed during our travels are also reminders of the socioeconomic issues that still exist in this country and that should be addressed and considered in addition to the innumerable wonderful qualities of both the culture and the landscape.

What are your first impressions of the field station?
The field station is a little slice of paradise. It is located at the end of the road in the community of La Presa, 5 kilometers away from the town of Atenas. It overlooks the green valley and the mountains that encircle it. There is an organic mango and orange farm available for picking at any time. Sustainability is a very important component of the field station, which can be observed in the organic mango orchard, the various greenhouses, the intricate compost system, and by the multiple clotheslines, which reduce energy consumption. There are many additional initiatives and lifestyle choices that exist in the community to reduce waste, conserve water, and reduce energy consumption. It is incredible to be surrounded by these sorts of practices and people who strive to live their lives in a truly sustainable manner.

It will take some time to become adjusted to the constant dampness that fills not only the air but also our clothes, shoes, belongings etc. I will also have to get used to the idea of poisonous snakes in the forests around us and scorpions that could be hiding under anything. One of my favorite things about the field station is its close proximity to the town of Atenas, in which we can practice our Spanish, meet great people, and experience the culture better than we can at our field station. The field station and the town of Atenas is also very close to mountains, rainforests, and the ocean which makes traveling and experiencing the great biodiversity of the country very viable.

What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you this semester both academically and culturally?
Academically I think the biggest challenge for me will be participating in and producing my own scientific research report. I have no real experience performing extensive field research and constructing publishable scientific reports. I am very excited to have this opportunity, but am pretty nervous about my lack of knowledge at this moment going into it all. Culturally I think my biggest challenge will be overcoming my fear of the language barrier. I am very apprehensive about going up to people to ask for directions, order food, etc. in Spanish. I am more comfortable with my understanding of Spanish than my conversational skills, and I am very nervous about embarrassing myself. I know that people will understand and appreciate my efforts, but I am still struggling with actually getting out there and speaking. I know that the best way for me to improve my skills and integrate myself into the culture is to speak and meet people in town, so I hope that I can overcome this barrier shortly.

What are you looking forward to the most about the semester?
I am looking forward to traveling this semester. We have about a dozen field trips to various national parks and universities in Costa Rica as well as a week long trip to Nicaragua and trips associated with our research projects. I also plan to travel to different regions of the country during free weekends and our week long break. I hope that these trips will give me the opportunity to interact with different communities in Costa Rica as well as Nicaragua, which will improve my Spanish conversational skills and better appreciate and understand the different cultures of Central America. I am also really excited to experience the biodiversity of the various regions. There are so many different plant and animal species to see and so many different landscapes to explore.

Give three words that best describe how you are feeling right now.
I am feeling a contradictory medley of emotions right now including: inspired, humbled, and apprehensive.