With the money I received from STEP, I went on a ten day backpacking and service trip in Costa Rica. The first half of the trip focused on hiking and getting to know the local people by staying in homestays. We also participated in service activities along the way such as painting a school in Uvita, Costa Rica.
While I had been on service trips prior to my time in Costa Rica, this was the first time I participated without knowing anyone. I was really nervous going into it but established strong connections right away due to the format of the trip. It made me realize that going out on my own in other areas of my life is very doable and I should dive in to other opportunities. It also showed me that the best way to connect with others—even through a language barrier—is through face to face contact. We were without phones and most technology which allowed us to be present and in tune with one another throughout the entire trip.
I became more confident and ready to try new things after my backpacking experience in Costa Rica and I felt my worldview shift as well. I have traveled in Central America before, but never been immersed in a culture like I was in Costa Rica. We stayed with families who were a part of a network of households that gave student groups like ours places to stay while they traveled. Because of this, we were lucky enough to get to know several families along the way, each of which shared their culture and language with us. We learned how to make cheese, how to harvest sugar, where the best parts of the river to swim were, and even how to slaughter a chicken. I think I had assumptions about the trip and the region before I went but having the opportunity to get to know the local people and live with them showed me just how valuable sharing different cultures with each other is.
There were several aspects during my trip that allowed me to feel a positive shift in my life. There were moments that challenged me both physically and mentally on my trip to Costa Rica. The main elements that contributed to the importance of my trip were going out of my comfort zone socially, on adventure excursions, and having the opportunity to immerse myself in the Costa Rican culture.
A major challenge for me before ever leaving for Costa Rica was coming into a new group of people without knowing anyone at all. There were a few people who knew each other a little bit, but mostly we all signed up for the trip by ourselves. We had meetings before to learn about the trip and get to know one another, but nothing can really prepare you for ten days with strangers. While I was nervous to introduce myself and was pretty quiet at first, I quickly opened up because of our trip. During the hiking duration of our trip, everyone bonded very quickly because of the unique circumstances we were under. It taught me not to be afraid to go out on a limb and be more outgoing in other parts of my life and I definitely noticed a change in myself when I returned home. I noticed that I was more talkative during my day to day life at home like in class or meeting people at work. Costa Rica made me a more confident and outgoing person overall.
Beyond meeting new people, the adventure aspect of the trip as well as learning about the local culture made me more confident. We backpacked, went repelling, rafting, showered in a river, and did so many other things I would have never had the opportunity to do at home. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone was essential to making the most of this trip, and I would not know how much I love most of those things without my time in Costa Rica. A lot of our time was spent interacting and living with local families as well. We stayed with our guides’ friends and families who opened their homes, fed us, and taught us things like harvesting sugar and making cheese. It was awesome to get to know people from Costa Rica as closely as another trip would not have allowed us to do so. The hospitality and importance of family was truly amazing to see and definitely contributed to the shift I felt after the trip of feeling more confident and accepted.
Trying to describe what my trip to Costa Rica meant to me is next to impossible in four paragraphs. To try and sum it up I vividly remember a moment of reflection I had on our longest hike of 8 miles. We stopped and took a break and I had been thinking about my previous year, one that had not been easy (part of the reason I wanted to go on this trip in the first place). I looked around at the mountains and lush green jungle surrounding me and felt so small, but in such a way where it was comforting. I felt at peace and really happy and confident in my decision to spend the first part of 2016 off the grid in one of the most beautiful places in the world. Without the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica with the funds from STEP I would not have made the strides I did to become a more confident, happier person.
After returning from Costa Rica my future goals of law school and working in a nonprofit one day were solidified for me. I had a lot of time while hiking to reflect on what I want to do with school and knew I was on the right path as an English major.
A real example of this is when I was awarded a trip to New York City to a Human Rights conference and film festival through the department of English. We often get emails detailing opportunities for students to apply to and I never applied because I thought I would not get them anyway. Shortly after returning home for Costa Rica, I realized I had nothing to lose and applied for the trip to New York. Without the confidence and “Why not?” mentality I gained in Costa Rica I would have never applied and been able to go to an eye opening conference, film festival, and site see all for no cost to me. My backpacking trip in Costa Rica has opened up other educational opportunities for me because of a newfound level of self-assuredness in my goals.