Study Abroad: Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica
My STEP Signature Project was a May Term course at Ohio State called Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica. It had a classroom portion and an in-country portion. The classroom portion was about two weeks long and involved lectures about geography, biodiversity, natural resources, and sustainability. Then, the entire class and the professor traveled to Costa Rica for two weeks to see firsthand many of the things we had learned about in lecture. We were constantly moving during our time in Costa Rica, and we were fortunate enough to travel to several diverse regions throughout the country.
Our entire time abroad was spent visiting new locations and exploring national parks. The longest stay we made in one location was only about 3 days long. While exhausting, this constant on-the-go itinerary was also exciting. Every day was a new adventure – literally. We visited 3 different volcanoes: Volcán Poás, Volcán Arenal, and Volcán Tenorio. We also visited several waterfalls, most notably the Río Celeste Waterfall and La Fortuna Waterfall. In addition, almost every day was spent hiking through a different elevation level than the previous day. This allowed us to see how the landscape changed from region to region. One particularly exciting hike was a night hike through the rainforest. Reserva Santa Elena, a cloud forest that we got to visit, was also very interesting. We saw several bodies of water too, including Lake Botos, Lake Arenal, and the Tarcoles River. We came face-to-face with all kinds of wildlife, like crocodiles, monkeys, iguanas, sloths, and butterflies. We got to see a hydroelectric dam, windmills, and geothermal hot springs. Overall, the environmental aspects of this experience were unbelievable. I could not even find any post cards to send to my family that accurately portrayed the beauty we saw in the landscapes and wildlife of Costa Rica.
Another important aspect of the Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica program was learning about the people and culture of Costa Rica. We got to stay in the capital city, San José, as well as several other cities, towns, and villages across the country. These were all vastly different. Some were lively, popular tourist sites, others were remote mountain communities. At the beginning of the trip, we got to tour the Teatro Nacional de Costa Rica. Here, we learned a lot about the history and culture of the country – a great preface for the rest of our adventure. In each region, we got to experience the unique cuisines, traditions, and daily lives of the people that lived there. One of my favorite days was when we got to visit a tiny school that was up in one of the mountain villages we passed through. The students performed some of Costa Rica’s traditional dances, and then we got to eat lunch and play soccer, or fútbol, with the children. I tried speaking Spanish, the official language of Costa Rica, throughout our trip as well. However, I was surprised by how many people spoke fluent English.
We also got to work on two different service projects – both of which were reforestation projects that benefitted the environment as well as the local community. These projects, while challenging, were immensely rewarding. It was amazing to see the integral roles that the environment played in each location and in the daily lives of each citizen. It was also interesting how important the tourism industry was throughout Costa Rica. The Ticos (Costa Rican people) took such great care to protect the environment because it was vital to their way of life and to the tourism industry – which supports a large part of their economy.
This trip taught me a lot about myself and the world around me. Because each day was so jam packed full of activity and traveling, and because of all of the strenuous hiking we did, I was exhausted by the end of every day. I became more self-aware and I learned that I am a lot tougher and stronger than I initially believed. The obstacles and limitations that I originally saw before me transformed into new personal accomplishments as I conquered volcanos, mountains, and rainforests. I also acquired a new love for hiking, and have ventured out to local forest preserves and state parks now that I am back in the United States. This has shown me even more of the beauty that the environment has to offer, and has taught me even more about my surroundings. I also became more adventurous in terms of food. I used to be a very picky eater, but in Costa Rica, I tried all kinds of new and exotic fruits and dishes. My experience in Costa Rica taught me that adventure is waiting around every corner, and taking advantage of each one is worthwhile.
My perspective of the world also changed dramatically. While I already had a great appreciation for the environment (I am an Environmental Engineering major), this appreciation grew when I saw so many amazing aspects of the rich biodiversity in Costa Rica, and how vital they all are to the livelihood of so many Costa Ricans. So many people made a living by sustainably taking advantage of their natural resources. I was humbled by the modest way of the life that each Tico led. Each person was so respectful not only of the environment, but of us as well. Wherever we traveled, we were welcomed with open arms. People shared their knowledge, food, and traditions with us, and I learned so much from each and every person I met while in Costa Rica.
Perhaps my favorite part of Costa Rica was the phrase “Pura Vida”. Directly translated, this means “pure life”, but in Costa Rica, this phrase means so much more. It can be used as a hello, good bye, and an expression of gratitude or excitement – its use is fitting in almost circumstance. To the Ticos, it means “it’s all good”, and it signifies an eternal optimism and love for life. Thus, “Pura Vida” was not just a saying, it was a way of life. We met people in Costa Rica who had next to nothing, but they welcomed us and shared what they did have with genuine smiles on their faces. Everyone was a friend. Their humble love for life has inspired the same sentiments in me. I want to represent the “Pura Vida” lifestyle through my life in the United States and as a student at Ohio State, because I think everyone has something to gain from the optimism and happiness it preaches.
After my STEP signature project, Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica, I learned a lot of invaluable lessons about the environment, the international community, and myself. By venturing into another country, I was able to take a hands on approach and immerse myself in a completely unique environment and culture. I want to pass this knowledge on to my fellow Buckeyes and peers, and have continued my involvement with STEP as an ambassador so that I can do this and help other students design their own signature projects as well. Thanks to my STEP experience, I was transformed into a stronger, more gracious, and more globally and environmentally aware student and participant in our international community.