My STEP experience took me to Costa Rica, on a 10 day study abroad trip with Ohio State. The topic of our trip was sustainability, and I hoped to learn about how this small developing country managed to make itself into one of the most environmentally friendly nations on Earth.
This was my first time outside of the United States and Canada, but what I was struck most by was how un-foreign Costa Rica felt. Sure, everyone spoke Spanish and there were palm trees everywhere, but the city of San José looked and felt much like parts of Toronto or Philadelphia that I’ve been to. The mountainous, forested countryside broken up by farms and pastures looked like a tropical West Virginia. I think that my reasonably decent Spanish might have made for a little less of a culture shock, but the Costa Rica that I saw had a lot more in common with what I knew than I expected it to.
Speaking of my marginally intelligible Español, one of the most exciting parts of this trip for me was actually getting to use it! I took five years of Spanish classes, starting in eighth grade, but I had never actually spoken it outside of the classroom until this trip. While I remembered a lot of what I had learned, I was surprised at how frustrating it was to coherently say what I wanted to say. I really take for granted my access to a large vocabulary of English words, and it seemed like every other sentence I would be left grasping for a Spanish word that I had never learned. Spanish classes do a great job of teaching you how to write essays about Gabriel Garcia Marquez stories, but they leave you woefully unprepared to discuss something as simple as what you’re studying and your post-graduation plans with a stranger. Even making small talk was hard; I don’t have to think about how to construct complex series of subjects and verbs in English (“she told me to ask you what to do with these”), but in Spanish I mostly just floundered until the person I was talking to was able to fill in the blanks for me. This isn’t to say that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy it, just that it was mentally exhausting. Whether it was chatting with students at an elementary school, or talking to a young woman who worked at our hotel about whether snow really looked like it does in the movies, these conversations were some of the highlights of my trip.
While I expected to be amazed by the natural beauty and wildlife of Costa Rica, I wasn’t anticipating how much of an impact the people I met would have. I’ve already touched on how great the Costa Rican people that I met made my trip, but it definitely wouldn’t have been the same without my fellow students, either. Our class started with a two-week on-campus component, during which none of us really interacted with each other. This didn’t leave me with particularly high hopes for developing camaraderie on our trip, but I was very much mistaken. Over our 10 days in Costa Rica, our whole group became very close. By the time the end of the trip rolled around, no one wanted to go home, which was as much due to the friendships we had developed as to the great times we had in Costa Rica.
As far as the environmental sustainability aspect went, it was really cool to see how dedicated to protecting their natural heritage most Costa Ricans seem to be. From little things—recycling is ubiquitous there—to the huge hydroelectric projects and roofs covered in solar panels, environmental sustainability really seems to be a way of life in Costa Rica. Their government has done a great job of encouraging people to be good stewards of the environment, too. By allowing local communities to manage and profit from parks and preserves, they create an incentive to protect precious natural areas.
I’m not going to spout the stupid “college student who just got back from study abroad” clichés about how this trip completely changed my life—it didn’t. But what it has done is give me a little bit of a broader perspective. I got to visit another country, and see how different it was (not very). I got to see some really cool wildlife and landscapes. I got to meet some cool people. I think what this trip has really done for me is lay a framework for future travel. Maybe I’ll look a little more seriously at the possibility of going to graduate school abroad, or at least doing more international travel. Maybe I’ll more seriously explore the cool places that the US has to offer. Whatever the ultimate outcomes are, I’m so glad that I chose to study abroad.