Panama Rainforest- May 2016

view of the average guided tour-- and an early phase of the French Braid takeover

view of the average guided tour– and Phase 1 of the French Braid Takeover

For my STEP signature project, I participated in a two week study abroad program for Tropical Field Ecology in Gamboa, Panama. The course was structured around seeing the research being done in the area, conducting our own, and taking any opportunity to cross sightseeing with learning.

Much of the group’s time was spent on Barro Colorado Island– a world-renowned center of biodiversity. During our last tour of the deeper rainforest, we stopped to rest and we were passed overhead by a troop of golden-mantled howler monkeys; hearing the howls in the distance every night built up a lot of anticipation prior to this. The troop consisted of 4-5 adults– it’s hard to tell when they’re not all in view simultaneously– and one baby a fraction of the others’ size swinging in their wake. At least one of the adults was male, and the baby was estimated at 9-12 months old by the TA, citing maturation into black fur and behavioral cues (hovering near the mother but swinging playfully on his prehensile tail). All of them were foraging and lazily popping leaves into their mouths, but two of the larger adults descended a few feet further to the ground, laid stomach-down on thick branches, and stared intensely back at us. Given that we weren’t howled at and they took their sweet time leaving, we were seen as more of a curiosity than a threat, but years of researcher activity have definitely familiarized them to the conspicuously colored ground apes.

Coordinators in OIA kept emphasizing culture shock pre-departure, but the main thing that felt surreal was the local perception of “common” animals compared to those back home. Prior to this, I had only seen leaf-cutter ants in the Cincinnati Zoo, marching along a tube in the insect house just east of the gorilla enclosure. But in Panama they were marching everywhere from the deep jungle to paved roads, analogous to the boring black ants that scheme over picnic food in the US. Another night, I was wading through a pond to collect data on red-eyed tree frog eggs, reflecting on how it’s a far leap (pun intended) from reading about the species in Magic Tree House in preschool. At one point I felt a small pressure on my knee, too abrupt to be a leaf brushing past. I swung over the flashlight beam to an actual red-eyed tree frog just clinging to my pants and bobbing his vocal sac up and down. After a few moments of hesitation, he hopped down to my boot and away into the brush. Across the country, agoutis were akin to squirrels, and the Panama City Zoo had a single white tailed deer grazing in a cage. My point is that exoticism is fascinating by definition, but also entirely subjective, and small day to day moments reinforced the idea.

the ride to the Embera village of Puru (captured by Logan Rance)

cruising to the Embera village of Puru (pc: Logan Rance)

At another point we visited a village of Embera— one of the few indigenous peoples whose culture survived Spanish conquest. A translator walked with the village healer to show us the plants in the area used for food, medicines, and dyes. The leaves of one plant functioned as a chemical exfoliant, and locals would rub it on their babies so that they wouldn’t grow up with body hair. Immediately I was intrigued that preference for hair removal isn’t an exclusively First World standard of beauty… but the thought soon turned to “where can I get some of these leaves??” Natives would also decorate themselves with jagua fruit— it stains the skin in a manner similar to henna, and when mixed with a cocktail of herbs allegedly acts as an insect repellant. Our group had an opportunity to be painted in the same manner, and given that I had no professional aspirations in the coming weeks, they hit me up with a geometric design all across my collar bones and arms.

Other notable activities included kayaking around Lake Gatun, touring the Panama Canal, visiting the Museum of Biological Diversity, exploring Fort Sherman (a favorite base of pirate Henry Morgan), and playing in a saltwater tide pool on the Caribbean side. The tide pool was off the official itinerary, but way up there in terms of my favorite adventure spots. Every square inch was covered in chitons and tiny hermit crabs that made the landscape painful to navigate- a plateau of legos, if you can imagine. In small groups we’d stop every few feet and crouch with our backs to the sun, trying to pry up the chitons from the rock bed. It was high tide by the time we got to the cliff face, and waves would crash over at least four feet high. At least half of us ended up with cuts and small injuries from being knocked around by waves and crustaceans, but overall it was incredibly therapeutic.

Most of the experiences didn’t change my long-term perspectives so much as short-term adrenaline levels. But the more relevant takeaways relate to my intended career of research in the biological sciences. While I still intend to go to grad school for genetics, a big part of my decision to embark on this project was to brainstorm plans C through F, in case things don’t go as planned. And as expected, a lot of the discussions we had with researchers either reinforced or challenged my understanding of higher academia. For instance, I’d long been under the impression that a doctoral degree is necessary to make a noticeable impact on scientific knowledge, but most of the people we talked to were in post-baccalaureate internships, and making incredible strides with their work. Local projects like Agua Salud gave some hope that the scientific community can work in harmony with government to restore fractured habitats, to test wood viability for reforestation and commercial use, etc. ICBG also gave me a little more interest in bioprospecting, after learning about relationships like bufotoxins in treating arrhythmia. However, both institutions also reinforced the idea that funding is everything– unless you can secure and renew it, it’s a very real possibility to be packed up and sent home.

If I had the opportunity to go back and pick a different study abroad program or STEP category, I wouldn’t change a thing. Studying in Gamboa was incredibly fun, I’ve made good friends from it, and learned way more about the ins and outs of field work and the biological sciences.

STEP Reflection


Keith Hubbard

Study Abroad


This summer for my STEP Signature Project I embarked on a 2-month long trip Study Abroad at the Technische Universtät Dresden (TUD). There with other students we went on multiple excursions to learn about the history of Dresden from its beginnings during the reformation, up until its current day issues. Additionally, we took classes and participated and projects that would help us strengthen our German language and grammar skills.


While abroad one of the things that really changed for me was my understanding of the relationship between history and the environment that surrounds it. What I mean by this, is that you can go to a location, monument, or building and 100 years ago that building could have had an entirely different purpose that it was used for today. Like how the area where military history museum is situated today, used to serve as a weapons armory under Hitler’s reign.

Another thing that I learned was what it means to be a U.S. Citizen. What are rights associated with that study abroad. How do people perceive you? And how I need to carry myself around others when in a guest country. Being a visitor in the country, meant that everywhere I traveled I represented the United States of America. Every action I took or every action I took reflected what people would think of American people. The multiple interactions I had with people abroad widened and transformed my opinions about our cultures, and broadened my knowledge about the world around me.


There were plenty examples of how history affects its surrounding environment in Dresden. One example of this was when we witnessed a refugee camp that is currently in Dresden. Before going on this trip my perception of a refugee camp was that they involved people living in tents and that living conditions were very poor and people were fighting for food and resources. However, upon arriving outside of one my perception was completely false. Instead of staying in area full of tents, the refugees stayed in a Days Inn Hotel that was surrounded by small fencing. It didn’t seem like the people were suffering or lacking resources of any kind. Instead it was more like they just had a citizenship for the reserved area in the fencing until the refugee’s circumstance was resolved. If you were an ordinary tourist walking by you wouldn’t even notice that it was a refugee camp, which is probably the government’s intention.

Specifically, my interactions with the various friends I meet in Germany through the university, or from various excursions, helped me learn about the world around me. One of things I noticed from my friends was how important U.S. Politics are on the world stage. Frequently, by many people I was asked about the political climate in the United States. I was asked about my opinions of the various candidates running for office or the relationship between the police and citizens as well. Specifically, why haven’t the gun laws changed in the U.S., or why would we nominate a candidate that is so hateful to run for the presidency. It shocked me that other countries were so interested in U.S. affairs when I couldn’t name a single person in the German government other than Angela Merkel before I left. Additionally it showcased the importance of our society on the rest of the world.

I also learned about the privileges of being a U.S Citizen. One of the privileges we have as a U.S. Citizen is that almost every person speaks or is being taught English. Even one of friends said “it must be so lucky to speak english”. We do have it lucky as U.S. Citizens. If i ever ran into an emergency i could take the easy way out and call for help in english. Even when i went to prague, people would speak to me in english. It really sucked because i had to go out of my way to speak german. But it also inspired me to work harder. This really inspired me to give that extra effort to speak and learn my German while I study abroad because I didn’t want to seem entitled or represent our country in manner that seemed lazy or dumb to the people hear. I shouldn’t approach a language lazy and i need to respect learning a language because it is blessing, polite and a privilege to communicate with people across language barriers.


This trip was significant to me because it opened up my perspective on lot of issues today. For one it it re-evaluated how i approach history. I was taught the importance of asking questions. If something doesn’t seem right or is out of place, there is probably a story to it and an interesting one at that (like a statue in the middle of an abandoned forest, singe marks on the side of a church, or a renaissance arch near a bank). Also how our culture influences others decisions and that our opinions and actions have consequences on the world stage.

The main thing i took from this trip was that traveling really opens your eyes up to the world. Traveling to dresden was a blessing because i learned about the culture of the country and was able to connect it to experiences of my own. Its an experience i will never take for granted.

Spain Global May STEP Reflection

Stephen Post

Spain Global May: Study Abroad

STEP Reflection


Spain: The Country of Adaptability

My STEP Signature Project was the Spain Global May which examined the history of Madrid, a city which, like Spain itself, was shaped by empires, global crossings, immigration, migration and international commerce throughout history, long predating Madrid’s designation as the capital. I became familiar with the history of Madrid through readings, site visits and lectures; I was taught about the multicultural, global aspects of this history simultaneously, as well as through readings and videos on Spanish connections to migration and immigration in Europe, the USA and other parts of the world. We saw hands on what we are learning about as we explored the historical sites around Madrid, Toledo, and Bilbao.

I came to Spain with a lot of expectations. I expected that my years of working towards a Spanish minor would allow me to easily communicate and become more fluent in the language. I expected to try and slow down my lifestyle and adopt some of the ideals I had heard are conducive of Spain’s culture. I expected to reinvigorate my passion of learning as I explored a new place full of diversity. It is fine to have these expectations, but the important value needed for expectations that Spain has taught me is adaptability.

The Spain Global May has been a transformational one for me. I have learned about a different way of thinking that I believe I will take back with me to Ohio State. I have seen a larger presence of diversity in visiting another country than I ever did in the US, and realized that the capitalist values and other ideas that are so intrinsic to the US are not the only perspectives that exist. I have seen this most evident in the current political situation in Spain; the ideas and policies that the parties here want to implement would be considered radical in the US and yet Spain and several other countries exist with those opinions.

The culture of Spain is one that has grown over hundreds of years; it is rich with mudéjar architecture of Muslims, intellectual advancements of the Jews, and overwhelming influence of the Catholic Church. I have felt that because of the many years and influences Spain has had for its culture, it is a bit more set than the US. While both countries are constantly changing, Spain is a nation where certain aspects just have a stronger presence the will continue to last. In observable culture differences, Spain is much more open to the use of public displays of affection; they have longer days but a slower pace of life (i.e. breaks for siestas, extended big meals, and extremely late nights out socializing); and their values and thought processes are much different than in the US. Many things though are the same. Spain is a developed country that has many of the same systems that we have in the US like transportation, government, and rights/laws. Through our class and excursions, I learned that Spain and the US have been interconnected since the very beginning; I never knew how many different parts of Spain’s history overlapped with ours like how during the Spanish Civil War, Americans came over to fight.

It was this time that I spent truly experiencing Spanish culture through its many traditional foods, energetic night life, and its vast historical influences. These were experienced most in times where we actually got to interact with the people of Spain. When you go to an Atletico Madrid futbol game and get a tour of the stadium, you can feel a city’s excitement; when you walk around the streets of Lavapies finding and analyzing the political meanings of street art, you understand how it is truly art; and when you visit the cathedrals, mosques, and synagogues that have influenced Spain over hundreds of years, you can recognize why they see religion more as an identity and not a practice.

These enlightening experiences were a large part of my transformation, but not nearly as much as the relationships I made with fellow students, our Spanish counterparts, or a random stranger. These people changed my way of thinking, and offered a perspective that I had not yet received but deeply needed. Through genuine interaction and sharing our stories I found that we often had similar problems, but very different solutions.

I have enriched my academic experience not just in learning about the history of Spain or in practicing Spanish, but by gaining a global perspective. Many of the trips we went on and sites that we visited like The Valley of the Fallen and Cathedral in Toledo made me think about my own views and the opinions I hold like that of my religion. It is this exposure to new ideas and perspectives that I is the most valuable lesson I have through this experience. I feel like this study abroad experience has prepared me to go down whatever future path whether that’s a foreign service officer or a social justice activist. Through this sense of adaptability, I know I can achieve my goals.

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Art Passion into a Summer of a Lifetime

Name: Dominique Johnson

Type of Project: Study Abroad

For my STEP signature project, I participated in a study abroad program in Buenos Aires and Salta, Argentina. We studied the history of Buenos Aires as a “global hotspot”, considering it contains two-thirds of the country’s population, and were immersed in the culture and Spanish language. The two-day excursion to Salta was to experience rural Argentina, as opposed to the to a modern city, and traveled through the Andes mountains and the small villages within.

Far above everything I learned about the Buenos Aires and Argentinean culture, this experience changed my perspective of the world. I realized there is so much more of the world that I have yet to see. The summer of 2016 ended up being one of the best summers of my life because of how much I matured and finally realized how much I don’t know. For the first time, I saw a life of endless possibilities. The entire summer I was immersed in Hispanic/Spanish culture. Due to extreme flight days, I spent two days in Miami, Florida and it is truly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen. It is full of so much life and energy. The best part was being able to speak to the people—a moment where a Latina travel guide try to sell me on a $500 jet ski and teach me basic Spanish phrases at the same time. Of course, I did not buy it, but I gained an incredible amount of joy from speaking to her and she told me to take in every moment as a learning experience. I barely knew this women, but somehow she was one of the most memorable people I met this past summer.

I was a little upset that I missed the first day of my study abroad trip, but those two days in Miami were important and I consider them to be a part of my STEP experience. They were important and memorable because of the humility and new sense of liveliness I gained from being around the people there. When I finally made it to Buenos Aires, I was even more excited for the trip and had already transformed from just a student to a young women ready to take on whatever life throws at her. I realized life can’t be planned. The spontaneity of life is what makes it so great. Sometimes in college we get caught up in and stress over the future that we forget to enjoy the journey. The spontaneous music performances in Buenos Aires to pictures with llamas in the Andes mountains taught me to not always worry about tomorrow, but to be in the moment.

Many of my experiences in Buenos Aires and Salta reminded me of some of my roots and some loves of mine. A lot of my experiences brought me back to me. It may sound corny, but it is very true. My entire life I have been an arts-centered person. The creative and performing arts are my first love and those were some of my favorite moments in Buenos Aires and Salta.

We had the chance to take a tango lesson and watch a tango show over dinner. It was an incredible night being able to watch the exquisite art created by the dancers with their body movements. Every dance had a story, without saying a single word. That’s what I love the most about the arts: the stories. Every art form has the purpose of telling a story that could change someone’s life. The tango reminded me of why I trained in dance for twelve years without a single fret. It inspired me to be a better person and taught me discipline. I reflected on passions of mine while watching a dance that was created and cultivated in Argentina.

As an African American woman, I have always felt the effects of the under privileges of my people forced upon us by systemic oppression. This study abroad experience made me appreciate what I do have. Of course, we had to experience the nightlife of Argentina and these kids approached me about my iPhone and asked me if he could touch it. I did not understand. In my eyes, it was just a phone, but I soon realized that it is not a common thing to have in their country. It is considered a luxury, which explains why it is the number one item pickpocketed in their country.

I also felt what it is like to live somewhere the official language is not your first language. There are many Americans who are quick to dismiss someone because of their broken English, which is wrong. Now, I truly understand the struggle of not knowing or being efficient in the native language. I accepted it and took the time to learn their language instead of forcing them to speak English because I was uncomfortable. Now my Spanish has significantly improved, which will definitely be useful in the adventures that are to come. I transformed mentally and spiritually during this trip, while experiencing an inevitable intellectual transformation.

After the study abroad program concluded, I did not go home. I flew straight to Los Angeles for my internship at Paramount Pictures. I went from a huge academic experience to an even bigger professional experience. Once again, this summer was truly on the best of my life. The trip prepared me to take on this internship because I had a new sort of confidence about myself about what I had experienced and it gave me a sense of direction about my goal for that internship—to explore my passion, now that I was reminded what it was. I did not take anything for granted because that can be easy to do. I saw my full potential this summer. I realized I wanted to go all over the world and create stories for the whole world to enjoy. Yes, there are benefits from being able to highlight this experience on my resumes and speak about it to employees, but the personal growth of confidence and re-enlightenment I experienced about my passion for art is the most valuable to me.


My London Adventure

This past May I had the opportunity to study abroad in London. I participated in the Global May Britain study abroad program and it was one of the best decisions of my life. I learned about the politics, culture and history of London both in and out of the classroom, which truly enriched my college experience.



Growing up in Columbus and attending a university so close to home made the transition from high school to college seamless. I wasn’t challenged by a new and unfamiliar city, or homesickness as most freshmen are. I hoped to venture outside the walls of my tight-knit community and experience independence and growth in a foreign city. I had always been a fan of big cities such as New York City and Los Angeles, which drew me to London. I couldn’t have chosen a better location for me to thrive and grow.


Going into this program I knew no one and was nervous to be away from my friends and family for a month. However the opportunity to be abroad far outweighed any of my hesitations. While abroad I expanded my horizons by making new friendships with both OSU students and London locals. I was also exposed to different parts of the city and saw the wide variety of the demographics in London. This opened my eyes to the fact that not all Londoners fit the tea sipping, pale skinned, proper stereotype. In the suburb we stayed in the neighborhood was primarily Indian and broke the initial vision I had of London. I realized that London is arguably a bigger mixing pot than New York City with all the surrounding European cities that flow into it. The different communities that make up London showed me the depth and history of the city. I now see London as a diverse city that brings together varying cultures. I now feel I am a more globally aware person and do not identify countries by my preconceived notions.


Everyday I found myself exposed to different cultures and faced with new experiences. One of the challenges I faced that helped me venture outside of my comfort zone was the transportation system. In London the tube system is heavily used and it took a lot of getting used to. Without the comforts of my car I was forced to stand extremely close with complete strangers, however this helped me to open up and make new friends. A lot of bonding occurred while on the tube whether that was singing late at night, getting completely lost or meeting unique locals. Although the tube started out as an unfamiliar and awkward form of transportation it grew to be one of the things I looked forward to everyday.


Another aspect of London that transformed my view of the world was the history. London is hundreds of years older than the United States and holds so many ancient gems. Seeing the Globe Theatre, the Tower of London, Shakespeare’s house in Stratford-Upon-Avon, The London Bridge, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey opened my eyes to the depth that London had to offer. I was fascinated by the incredible people who had once been in these places and made such an impact on London. I was so thankful for the opportunity to learn about the history of London in the classroom and truly understand the history of the sites when I saw them for myself.


Seeing the variances between the United States and London intrigued me and forced me to think in a more globally minded way. Continuously throughout the month I noticed differences and similarities between the people, food and culture. Whether it was the fact that the toilet paper was square napkins instead of a roll or the wonderful British accents that we lacked. I constantly found myself discovering new ways that the countries differed. The architecture particularly caught my attention and astonished me. Wherever I went I was always met with historical buildings, interesting museums and beautiful designs. Obviously, Columbus is a small town and would not have the big city feel, but even in New York City there is not the same level of ancient culture that London encompasses. Walking into St. Paul’s Cathedral and West Minster Abbey I got the feeling of royalty and breathtaking beauty that I fail to see in the United States. These architectural works of art are incredible to me and the fact that they were built so long ago without today’s technology is mind blowing. I now have a stronger appreciation for the past and the incredible buildings erected so long ago.


As corny as it sounds I can’t believe how much I have grown and evolved as a person in such a short amount of time while abroad. There is so much to be learned through experiencing different cultures and opening yourself up to new opportunities. I am so thankful for this trip and all the amazing new friends I have met through it. Not only have I grown personally, but academically and professionally as well. The fact that I took a history course abroad and can actually say that I saw what I learned about will be one of my most memorable experiences from college. In addition to this, getting to work in a small class allowed me to truly get to know my peers and teachers. Since studying abroad I have been inspired to take a semester abroad in Spain and plan to work in London post-grad. There is so much to be gained while studying abroad and I can’t wait to see what else is in store.


Check out my blog posts at: Keeping Up With Kaki

Danish Institute of Study – Denmark, Copenhagen

Name: Gwyneth Frederick

Type of Project: Study Abroad – Copenhagen, Denmark

My STEP Summer 2016 transformational experience took place at the Danish Institute of Study (DIS), which is an English-speaking study abroad school located in the Danish capital of Copenhagen. During my six weeks living and learning in this major European capitol, I was able to earn six Ohio State University credits through two separate DIS courses. The first course taken was a social studies class that focused on health delivery and medical prioritization throughout Northern Europe, while the second course was an in-depth analysis of the cultural significance of food to humanity throughout history and in a modern social setting.


Entering the Danish Institute of Study classroom for my first course with basic background knowledge on International Health care systems and Public Health dynamics, I held the Scandinavian socialized form of health delivery at a high standard. And after three weeks of breaking down and analyzing its nuances, discussing policy and society in relation to the healthcare system, and communicating directly with professionals in the field, it is still easy to understand Denmark’s pride in its universal form of healthcare. However, the policies and products of this system are not what struck me as innovative or what challenged my assumptions or views of the world. Universal healthcare is quickly becoming a common form of access to everyday medical services throughout Europe as well as many parts of the western world. And it works, especially in the small country of Denmark.

While I left the course with a furthered comprehension of the Danish system, it was the attitudes of Danes (especially the younger generations of students and professionals, and their utter denial of the idea that anyone should be treated less than another) that truly affected my previous world-view. Throughout the course we reached out and visited professionals in hospitals, at general practitioner’s offices, recovery and therapy clinics, and disease prevention think tanks. No matter where we went, patients or potential patients were all seen as both individuals with specific problems and treatments, yet all equal in their varied importance. Treatments rose and fell depending on the patient’s circumstances, and caretakers and professionals alike saw to ensure the upmost comfort to all in need.


Regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, socioeconomic background, or treatment needed, if you reach out to a medical professional with a need, your need is met. And it is met without the need of co-pays or privately purchased insurance. All Danes pay incredibly inflated taxes, rates at which people from the United States would gasp. But they do so knowing that the risk is worth the equitable reward: a healthy, happy country that values the life-quality of citizens and visitors alike. While Denmark is a small country that can apply such political and economic practices easily, I believe we can all learn from the Danish cultural value of health and human equity, and apply it when we choose to utilize empathy over neglect or ignorance in our future endeavors. Both as individuals, and as a country.

Taking with me this newfound appreciation for Danish values, I entered my second course, Food & Identity, with high expectations. While I am a public health student with a keen interest in public policy and health delivery, I minor in nutrition and work seasonally on a farm. Food systems and the culture of food are a passion, one that I could speak endlessly about if given the opportunity. And thankful, this course finally provided me with that outlet. It made me realize not only how important food and the cultures surrounding it are to every individual, but also the importance it plays in my present and future goals. We were tasked with recording a few encounters with Danish food culture along the way:


In this course, we broke down the vitality of pork to the Danish agricultural market and how to be Danish is to eat pork; tracked the growth of social media food crazes and their roots in traditional worldly cuisines; held debates that challenged the differences of global diets and geography’s role in the creation of culturally vital foods; talked food sourcing and the paradox of how organic food production seems to never match organic food consumption because a globalized world shifts demand and production from country to country but never remains within physical or economic borders; and, how we both form and perpetuate an identity based on the food we choose to eat. Scoff at this last notion? What did you have for breakfast this morning? Was it healthy? Do you consider yourself a healthy person who values their body? Do you view food as a fuel or simply pleasure? Do you seek indulgence in daily life or find a sense of superiority and therefore comfort in your self-control? Does this reflect on how you approach tasks in life? On how you present yourself to society? Did what you eat reflect your culture or what you learned growing up in your childhood home? Did you even have enough motivation to wake early and prepare a meal for yourself this morning? Taking theses notions, among many others, and applying them to the study of nutrition and cultural food attitudes worldwide can help to bring about a greater appreciate for the fuel that sustains human life. Without this course, I would have never been able to learn how to analyze dynamics of culturally Danish food functions and generalize the research methods to global situations.


With my education and experience in the coming years I intend on pursuing a career in health and nutrition, both domestically and abroad.  I hope to take from my experiences at the Danish Institute of Study and form living for a time in the Danish culture and apply them to my future goals to study and research nutrition and hunger in the United States and throughout the world with a public health lens.  The combination may seem clear, but I know few who have chosen Public Health and Nutrition as a dual education course. They supplement each other, one providing science and the sustainment of a healthy life and the other breaking down social, economic, and political dynamics around humans and their choices and behaviors throughout health history. And I have been made more certain in my desire to continue perusing knowledge in both fields from my time in Denmark.


Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica

Name:  Heather Luken

Type of Project: Study Abroad


My STEP Signature Project was Environmental Sustainability in Costa Rica, in which I learned about the country’s conservation efforts through discussions with park managers and business owners.  I traveled across the country to San Jose and nine conservation sites including the cloud forests of Monteverde, the wetlands, and the Tenorio volcano.


Rio Celeste  Costa Rica

Rio Celeste

During this trip I developed an understanding of a unique culture and experienced a new sense of independence in an unfamiliar environment that took me out of my comfort zone.  I was forced to use the little Spanish I knew to communicate and I could see the challenges that arise with a language barrier.  It gave me a new perspective on how difficult it must be for some international students and new immigrants to adjust to a different lifestyle and form relationships.  In addition, Costa Ricans have a certain respect for the natural world and conservation is integrated into their way of life.  Even though I already have an appreciation for nature as a biology student, what I saw taught me how cooperation can have an immense positive impact on conservation.

Simple tasks such as ordering food, asking for directions, or having a conversation seemed to become a challenge in a different country.  One night, while we were staying at a hotel in the small town of La Fortuna, we tried talking to someone who was serving us food.  This was an opportunity for me to use my confidence in Spanish food vocabulary to try and connect with someone in another language.  Although I sometimes struggled to form a complete sentence, I could see the reward in what I was doing.  In my attempt at a conversation, simply making an effort to use their own language shows that I was taking an interest in their culture.  I can then more fully appreciate the energy many new Americans put into integrating themselves into a new way of life.


Border of Nicaragua

Border of Nicaragua

I was able to observe the importance of sustainability in a variety of settings in education, agriculture, and tourism.  We primarily focused on the coffee industry, visiting the main country’s producer in San Jose and a local coffee shop in La Fortuna.  The local shop seemed to be more concerned with farming practices that reduced waste and recycled certain byproducts for future production.  There was also a national park in Monteverde that hosted a program for a local high school to help with research in ecology, which was a way for students to become involved in sustainability.    They set up cameras to track the movements of prey in order to observe the roaming patterns of predators for conservation efforts.  The ecotourism industry also demonstrates how utilizing the environment in business can be beneficial in making money while still protecting the local ecosystem.  These experiences show how collaboration between different groups is essential for success in sustainability.

One of the main reasons I decided to do this particular study abroad program was because I wanted to see the biodiversity and range of ecosystems Costa Rica hosts.  This includes tropical forests, mountains, active volcanic areas, and coastal systems.  Growing up, I only saw temperate forests, grasslands, and a select group of animals and plants where I lived.  In Costa Rica, I helped with a mangrove restoration project next to Playa Palo Seco which prevents erosion and preserves the wetlands that are so important for the local ecosystem.  We also were able to see crocodiles along the Tarcoles River, monkeys in Playa Palo Seco, a multitude of birds on the Caño Negro, and so much more.  Spending time alongside these animals and taking part in service projects reinforced my appreciation of nature and the importance of preserving the biodiversity Earth holds.

From my admiration of the country’s natural environment to finding new ways I can integrate sustainability in all aspects of my life, Costa Rica has given me a new perspective as a biology student.  I have even decided to minor in Environmental Science since my trip as I now see the possibilities and impact that sustainability can have in a community.  Costa Rica has essentially turned its story around, restoring its forests after nearly all of them were gone just a half century ago.  The success of Costa Rica’s sustainability has inspired me to use what I have learned to preserve the natural resources in my own backyard.  In addition, I can use my understanding of the challenges many face when entering into a new culture to form meaningful relationships with people I would normally not get to know.

Francophone Africa: Between Tradition & Modernity

For about 5 weeks of my summer – spanning between May and June – I studied and experienced life in Dakar, Senegal as part of The Ohio State’s Education Abroad Program: Francophone Africa: Between Tradition and Modernity. Myself and about 25 other students participated as a way to consider and further understand the lingering economic, political, and social implications of the country once colonized by the French. Our classes at the West African Research Center and our trips to various cities within the country spoke to various themes such as religion and West African hip-hop, all while being taught in French or Wolof.

Amitié Trois neighborhood

Amitié Trois neighborhood

Prior to departing, I didn’t have many predetermined expectations for Senegal other than that it would be a complete 180 from life in Columbus and in America. I decided that I would land in Dakar with an open mind, ready to take in the country and its people as they were. I wasn’t going to Senegal to change others; I was going to change myself. My one expectation for an unbearable, dry heat consistent with stereotypical Africa was not met, much to my delight. I quickly realized when I landed and looked at my new surroundings that I had expectations even if they were subconscious. I might have been expecting an undeveloped country with citizens living poorly. I didn’t expect to closely relate to my host family or the Senegalese way of life because I first would have been judged too quickly by the way I looked and sounded.  I think I expected people to misunderstand me because they saw my light complexion before they saw the core values I wished to define myself with.

I found that our little corner of the world at The Ohio State University isn’t as little as I thought. We might be across the world from Dakar, but we still value many of the same things, namely connections and relationships with one another. We all desire to connect, feel relatable and care. We want to learn from each other as a method to appreciate our differences. I felt so connected to the country and people in so many different ways. The Senegalese place high value on each other that I don’t think many people in the United States do. They overlook a dividing factor like religion to seek peace and respect. I envied their seemingly endless acceptance for everyone. We were genuinely cared for and given the best our families had to offer. I discovered that no matter how lives are lived, they are respected. And no matter where people are from, they are loved.

Christian and Muslim cemetery in Joal

Christian and Muslim cemetery in Joal

In particular, my interactions with the host families in Dakar allowed me to experience an overwhelmingly hospitable and loving environment. In addition to my own host family, the families of other Ohio State students debunked any notion I had about them not being a welcoming, caring community. I had only been in Dakar a few days when my host mother realized that I loved potatoes and ice cream. She made an effort every night at dinner to have some form of potatoes on my plate and ice cream for dessert. She and my host father wanted so badly to make sure I ate lots of the foods I liked. And one host mother decided to take on our OSU group for dinner one night. She told us over and over again how happy it made her to have us in her home and that we were enjoying her company as well. Families and Senegalese friends did their best to prepare us for anything we needed. Whether that was an impromptu Wolof lesson before the final, some advice before an excursion, or a mandatory breakfast to go (because Maman knew you would be hungry later), it always known that I was important to my family. La Téranga sénégalais (Senegalese hospitality) certainly rang true during these weeks.

In addition to Senegalese hospitality, the presentation of different religions cooperating with each other questioned my thinking in how people who believe vastly different things can connect and live peacefully. I

My Senegalese host parents

My Senegalese host parents

came to understand through class discussion and conversation with my host parents that the religious tolerance exercised by the Senegalese is unique and quite incredible. My host father knew a lot about Islam and despite being Catholic, it was evident that he still valued the contributions of Islam. My host parents told me that the (loud) calls to prayer from the mosque behind our house never bothered them. The calls were important to the Muslims, so they accepted the minor disturbances. At dinner the evening before Ramadan started, my host father explained what Ramadan was in its entirety and told me that he practiced Ramadan as well. Religion was a critical part of daily life. I often saw individuals praying on the sidewalks or would hear prayers coming from inside houses as I would walk past. The religious peace that the Senegalese had truly amazed me because it’s something that I didn’t really imagine to be possible.

On one specific field trip to an art museum, I found a large multi-media piece called Equilibrium by Henri Sagna. It featured a black and white checker board

"Equilibrium" by Henri Sagna

“Equilibrium” by Henri Sagna

with churches and mosques on the squares in the opposing color. Simple, yet effective in conveying the artist’s message: Senegal has a religious balance. This specific piece spoke to me because I felt it represented what I was seeing and experiencing for the first time. It was a visual representation of complex idea. There is an inexplicable equilibrium between Muslims and Christians despite Christians only making up about 5% of the country’s population. Meaningful friendships persist despite religious diversity. Differing views don’t stop individuals from relating to and learning about one another. These short dinner conversations as well as local art convey the same unified message of respectful tolerance that identifies uniquely with Senegal.

Mosque on the beach at Yoff

Mosque on the beach at Yoff

Staying in Senegal for those 34 days has had a greater impact on my life than this present reflection allows. It would be impossible to properly dictate all of what I felt, learned, and reflected on. The

journey had many challenges, but also many moments of joy. I feel so privileged to have been able to practice my knowledge of the French language in a Francophone country and to experience the culture in a loving, residential environment. With continual grammatical help my host family gave me, I can confidently say that my French speaking skills have improved – even if only by a small margin. It was a time for me to explore a rich history first-hand and evaluate the education I’ve received in the United States and the direction I want my history degree to take. My experiences in Senegal empower me to be open minded and look for examples of tolerance in my life. I’ve seen the impact of having compassion for others. I draw parallels between what I saw in Dakar and what I see in my daily life. I’ve returned to Ohio appreciative of what I’ve seen and learned, but also appreciative of what I have. Conversations, relationships, and lessons learned are ones I won’t soon forget. The way in which the Senegalese past guides the future, but doesn’t determine it is a way in which I can live my life as I pursue all of my future endeavors.

Jamm rekk.

Global May Hungary Trip Reflection


eger-castle parliament-building

Name: Jeffrey Hooper II

Type of Project: Study Abroad

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project (2-3 sentences)

Immediately following spring semester, I finally travelled outside the United States by embarking on a month-long, STEP-funded adventure across Central Europe with 24 other OSU students. Our diverse group was navigated across the capital cities of Austria, Hungary, and Poland by the fearless OSU professor Daniel Pratt, our resident director and cultural compass. This magical month included weekday classroom sessions that culminated in a group video project, interspersed with weekend travel excursions, charming conversations, fabulous food, and daily cultural confusions.

  1. What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project? (1-2 paragraphs)

Spending a month in Europe decisively challenged my mentality toward college life and education while stimulating unexpected curiosity and engagement with my cultural roots back in Ohio. Upon returning to campus in August, I will aspire toward a more academically, professionally, and socially balanced lifestyle. Throughout my lifelong educational journey, I had naively and uncritically equated academic achievement with personal development. During those formative years, especially high school, I wasn’t committed to cultivating the relationships and passions that define a well-rounded individual. Perhaps that reluctance to explore and open up to others was linked to my introverted personality, financial uncertainties, academic indecisiveness, or other factors. Anyway, academic dedication allowed me to attend OSU and live in Columbus, an opportunity to reinvent myself. Before leaving for Europe in May, two years at OSU had already breezed by and I was struggling more than ever to articulate a career vision and find social fulfillment. However, I did have many meaningful experiences, including several Buck-I-SERV trips and collaboration with international students through OSU’s Global Leadership Initiative (GLI) cohort. Studying abroad was the natural next challenge to intensively travel and build community with other OSU students, yet this time outside my native country and cultural comfort zone. After considering endless possibilities, I settled on the Global May Hungary trip for a multitude of reasons. Most importantly, this program was enthusiastically recommended by several previous participants and I also loved the interdisciplinary class structure with the open-ended final project. The shockingly low cost and opportunity to visit multiple countries made the decision that much easier. Besides the potential for relationship building, academic enrichment, and global engagement, I most fundamentally desired to learn lessons of personal growth and self-awareness to guide my future career decisions and contributions to the world.

So, after all those lofty expectations, how did study abroad actually transform my personal aspiration and day-to-day life? Most importantly, I adapted to an intense social environment and felt liberated being myself. Especially during grade school and continuing through college, I rarely had friends over or went to parties; I mainly interacted with classmates academically or athletically. Living intensively in Europe for a month in a hostel with free-spirited college students who like to drink and eat out together, I had to leave my social comfort zone frequently and be tolerant of different lifestyle preferences. I ended up developing several strong friendships with people who I see as trustworthy confidantes to really help guide me on my journey. Besides practicing open-mindedness, I developed a passion for the region of Central and Eastern Europe that I have already acted upon academically. Going beyond Western stereotypes of these nations being reactionary, corrupt, and oppressed, I really empathized with these countries who have grappled with countless invasions and complex identities during their traumatic histories. I often felt overwhelmed by how much I didn’t know about other cultures and historical events. Perhaps the greatest gift of travelling and embracing diversity is sustaining the curiosity to learn and constantly reinventing yourself. For future international adventures, I feel like an expert in travel logistics for navigating airports, train stations, and public transportation by myself. At least in Europe, I am less fearful of language barriers because I got by the entire month mainly using English. After my flight home from London to NYC was delayed several hours, I even had to check into my Manhattan hostel at 3 in the morning, terrifying my parents back home. I now have memories and stories to tell that will last a lifetime and inspire me with purpose every day.

  1. What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed above and how did these affect you? (3-4 paragraphs)

After visiting and analyzing countless historical sites, museums, and public spaces throughout the trip, I am trained mentally to ask questions and think deeply during future travels about how and what people are served by their cultural institutions and public infrastructures. I really enjoyed how the academic component of the trip was organized with morning class sessions and field trips in the afternoon. The intent of the interdisciplinary curriculum was for us to explore deeply certain topics that piqued our interest, almost as if we were sampling a menu of Central European culture and history. Exploring the Jewish communities of Budapest and Warsaw resonated most because of their tragic stories from World War II and stigmatization in other times. To immerse ourselves in Jewish culture, we toured synagogues, old ghettos, and Jewish monuments, including the emotional Shoes on the Danube memorial in Budapest. In a region frequently exchanged by different empires and fragmented by nationality, issues of identity and migration are understandably sensitive. When I return home to family this Christmas, I’ll probably start researching and asking questions about my own European heritage. Probably my favorite group activity was our scavenger hunt around Warsaw, which forced us to navigate public transportation and find historic sites as quickly as possible.. Based on our particular research interests we formed groups for our final video project. As a warmup to practice our video editing skills, we each made a short video analyzing a particular Budapest monument. Intrigued by latent Russian sympathies in Hungary, I discussed Budapest’s only remaining Soviet memorial, which curiously still occupies a prominent downtown location facing the Hungarian Parliament Building. Budapest, Vienna, and Warsaw each had outstanding public transportation systems, far more convenient and prioritized than in US cities, so I decided to study European public transportation for the video. I started considering uncomfortable questions about why wealthy cities like Columbus fail to make similar investments. Perhaps the urban elites downtown and peripheral suburban communities who wield the most political power enjoy the comfort of a segregated city and want social problems like poverty and crime out of sight and out of mind?

Prior to arriving in Europe, I had never tried an alcoholic beverage before. However, during arrival day in Budapest, our group spontaneously congregated in the nearby pub for some casual afternoon drinking, an unsettling atmosphere at first. I avoided the temptation on this occasion, but I eventually enjoyed several wine bar nights and casual drinks during organized group outings, including a winery visit during our final day in Hungary. As my attitude evolved, I learned lessons of tolerance and patience. I felt completely out of my element navigating the social environment of Szimpla, a famous Budapest ruin pub that I finally visited during our last weekend. Even if my personal comfort zone requires more structured activities and smaller groups than that chaotic experience, I began to recognize the potential social and cultural value of such places. The deepest friendships that I developed came from small group exploration. I particularly loved Budapest’s escape rooms and the teamwork involved in solving those beautiful puzzles. Playing charades while boating on the Danube River was another unforgettable experience and opportunity to just kick back with friends. Other moments of free time were spent hiking caves, relaxing in thermal baths, exploring musical islands, and enjoying the early sunrise. Everyone had shifted to YOLO mode by the end of our trip. Even if we did return to Central Europe one day, travelling with that group of people was priceless so those moments were lived as fully as possible.

Many Americans travel exclusively by automobile and might see and hear only English their entire lives. Protected by two oceans and flanked by two quiet neighbors, the US is very parochial compared to its Western allies in Europe. Having grown up with this mindset, travelling in Europe was both challenging and exhilarating trying to navigate through airports, cities, and public transportation. For both transatlantic flights, I travelled independently with all sorts of delays and connecting flights to keep in mind. With these experiences under my belt, future excursions abroad will be preceded by far less nerves and frenzied travel preparations. Within Europe, we travelled by bus, plane, tram, subway, boat, bicycle, and walking. For the train journey from Budapest to Vienna, our group was even relegated to the cattle car. On a free Sunday, a small group of us took another train to the small Hungarian town of Eger to explore its famous castle and historic town square below. Unlike cosmopolitan, secular Budapest, Eger had hardly any English speakers and felt more like traditional Hungary. To prepare for each country, we learned survival lessons in German, Hungarian, and Polish but mainly people used English anyway. I often felt ashamed that service workers in these countries had to learn English and cater to the preferences of tourists rather than express their own language and culture. I exchanged currency for the first time once I landed in Budapest. By the time our trip was complete, I went home with five different currencies. Living out of suitcase for a month in a primitive hostel room was also an adjustment but forced me to be less materialistic and explore city nightlife. Prior to leaving in May, I have anxiously to all sorts of European travel suggestions about what to wear, buy, and how to behave abroad. Paranoid about being pick-pocketed, I invested in a money belt but eventually ditched that idea after several incident-free days in Europe. Next time visiting the continent, I will definitely leave behind my athletic clothes-dominated wardrobe and try to blend in more with the fashionable crowds. With my track pants and Adidas jackets, I unfortunately looked more like an East European gangster than a cultured traveler.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life? (1-2 paragraphs)

However I spent this summer and regardless of whether that included study abroad, I knew that my looming junior year at OSU would represent a crucial crossroads in my academic and personal journey. My reliance on grades alone for academic and career advancement had reached its limit. I would need to pursue my intellectual curiosities more with students and professors outside the classroom and finally commit to extracurricular challenges. Although I had increasingly stretched my comfort zone in my first two years with leadership roles and service experiences, my academic journey often felt aimless without commitment to any cause or meaningful application of my knowledge. After my European adventure ended in June, I began strategizing on the best route for returning to that fascinating region and how to link that cultural passion with my academic and career goals. Having switched colleges from engineering, I needed a foreign language now anyhow, so I began learning Russian this semester. I also enrolled in two other European-themed courses about organized crime and Southern European politics. I now hope to minor in Russian and hopefully add a major in International Studies with a regional focus on Eastern Europe. With this academic plan, I am increasingly committed to and see myself thriving in an internationally focused career likely in public service or academia. To realize those lofty, idealistic ambitions, I will need to continue networking with similarly passionate students and professors. Even if I can’t find the perfect fit, I will have to start making tough decisions about internships and graduate school soon; the real world is start to dawn on me. Besides career planning, perhaps my greatest challenge going forward is developing and practicing critical thinking skills. Too often when I’m taking a class or passively following the news, I focus on memorizing and consuming information rather than stepping back to think deeply about solutions. To truly transform into the globally-minded leader of my imagination, I will need exceptional self-awareness and communication skills to translate my passions and talents into meaningful action on the world stage. After fifteen years of taking tests and reading textbooks, academic success seems far less satisfying than ever before. Having now travelled through communities across the US and Europe, I feel compelled to finally create something meaningful of my own. That journey into the unknown begins now.

Echoes from the Blackfriary

My STEP signature project involved participation in an Irish Medieval History course. I spent 4 weeks in Trim, Ireland, studying the history and archeology of the medieval Dominican friary in that small town. Additionally, I worked with the 15 other students on the trip to create a podcast which documented our historical and folklore study over the course of 3 episodes.

In anticipation of my study abroad, I expected my worldview to change somewhat, if only from being in a country other than the United States for the first time. What I could not have anticipated was exactly how my understanding of the world would change. While in Ireland, I gained perspective on the type of student that I am and the challenges I would face in myself and my career.

Before my trip, I thought I was a rigid learner who could only study by reading the textbook and taking detailed notes to understand material. In Ireland, I had no archeology textbook. I learned by working with my peers and advisors and we determined the most successful and unsuccessful strategies to complete our project. The less I talked and more I listened, the more I understood that every person I met on the trip, whether they supported or challenged me, had something to teach me. I left the United States without any expectation for our final project, and returned with something I could be proud of, knowing that it took great effort and a creative transformation to complete.

Our first week in Ireland, we were presented with an academic challenge: how do we contextualize the archeology of the Blackfriary in Trim using local folklore? In our initial brainstorm, we decided it would be exciting and accessible to use audio interviews of Trim locals sharing their personal connection with the town and its history to create a podcast about our work at the dig site. This led us on an unpredictable and transformational journey.

Our student team worked tirelessly to follow the historical trail of breadcrumbs, compile the relevant interviews, and create a podcast that was engaging, informative, and accomplished our goals. The mere process of meeting and interviewing Trim’s citizens is what initially altered my view of learning. It was so fun to hear more about the incredibly unique relationship each individual had with the town and the dig site, I often forgot I was working on the project and my education became effortless. I saw the value in this and simply began listening, asking questions, and engaging my new community to determine the best path for the project.

Despite my newfound learning technique, completing the podcast wasn’t always easy. There were plenty of roadblocks that often seemed insurmountable. Sometimes, great audio was brought into question due to miscommunication with collaborators. Some students working on the project lost focus or motivation along the way. Our time constraint became a real worry during the final days leading up to the presentation. However, all of these forces pushed me to find solutions and complete my commitment; the project leaders never lost hope, and encouraged us to work around our apparent challenges.

In the end, I realized it was both the positive experiences of working with passionate, motivated people to create something worthwhile and the countless hurdles between us and the finish line that helped me abandon my black-and-white perceptions of the world and become a more creative, keen student. Not all of the answers are in the textbook. However, creating our podcast in Ireland taught me that the solutions were present, if I paid attention to the world around me.

As a student who hopes to become a physician one day, I often hone in on my academic performance and focus only on studying and homework. I can work myself into corners where I’ve pored over material for hours with no clear answer in sight. This could also present a challenge later on when I need to come up with innovative solutions to help a patient achieve their best outcome. Instead of limiting myself to what I know I’m comfortable with, I can remember to seek out those around me who have experiences distinct from my own. Whether they challenge or encourage me, I will be stretched to find the best solution to any problem I may encounter.


Our podcast can be found here.


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