STEP Experience in Costa Rica

I spent my summer in Costa Rica as part of my STEP signature project. For the first month, I took Spanish classes at the Universidad Latina in Heredia and for the second month I volunteered at a nursing home as part of a service learning program.

During my time in Costa Rica, I learned a lot about the world around me. Although I have traveled before, this was my first time being abroad for an extended period of time. Culture in Costa Rica is different from the United States in certain ways. I felt like the lifestyle was more relaxed, almost more informal. I learned about “tico time”, and how it is normal to often be late even in professional settings. In Costa Rica, I learned to live a more relaxed, less stressful life. I learned to be flexible with time and plans, and to quickly adapt to change. I think these lessons will be very beneficial when I come home, as my life in Columbus is usually very fast paced. I think after this experience, I have learned to better adapt to stress and change and I think this will serve me well at home.

I had two primary goals in Costa Rica: learn the language and study the healthcare system. As a Spanish major, this was my first extended period of time in a Spanish speaking country. Going into the trip, I thought/hoped my transformative experience would be mastering a language I have been trying to learn for twelve years now. Instead my transformative experience, I would argue, was learning how to get by. I did not come home from Costa Rica a fluent Spanish speaker. I still had to conjugate the perfect tenses painfully slowly in my head, I still didn’t understand other people when they talked too fast, and I still got confused in slang heavy conversations. I did however, learn to embrace the struggle. As for the second goal, my time in a Costa Rica nursing home changed the way I looked at certain aspects of public health, medicine, and palliative care. I was exposed to a set of struggles, the idea of inevitably losing oneself, that I had not really thought about before.

Studying Spanish in Costa Rica reinforced the value of speaking a second language. I think talking to people in their native language facilitates deeper, more meaningful connections. I tried to communicate only in Spanish while in Costa Rica, and I found that even people who spoke perfect English always preferred to communicate with me in Spanish even if it slowed down the conversation. I think the world is becoming more global and it is important to speak more than one language, to be able to communicate and connect with people from all over the world, especially as the demographics of the United States are changing and Spanish is becoming a much more prevalent language.My goal was to attain fluency in Costa Rica and I don’t think I have reached that level yet, but I am close and will keep working towards that goal. However, I did learn a lesson in resiliency. Learning a new language is difficult. Sometimes the taxi drivers would get angry, when after the third try, I could not explain where I wanted to go. Sometimes a 10 minute walk turned into an hour long walk because we didn’t understand the directions. Sometimes I boarded the wrong bus, ordered the wrong food, or went to the wrong place. Being used to a place where I speak the primary language made me forget how debilitating losing certain basic skills can feel. I had to learn to take things in stride, to worry less if I was going to be late or if I missed a bus. Not because I lacked responsibility but because learning is a process. As time went on I learned to adjust- to time the buses, recognize the friendly drivers, use landmarks on the streets. However, I learned that it is okay to be lost, to not always know where I am or what I am doing. I didn’t have to have all the answers– that’s why I was there in the first place. Taking a step back was an important and transformative lesson for me.

Working at the nursing home, I became aware of many of the challenges faced by elderly people both at an individual and societal level. I think I have come back to the United States with a new, reinforced respect for language and I am very motivated to keep studying Spanish and improving.

I formed several very important relationships during my study abroad that helped me transform during my time in Costa Rica. I had the opportunity to do a homestay with a Costa Rican family. Our accommodations were humble, and my family was just my host mother but immediately I knew I had met a special person. When my host mother came to pick me up from the bus station, her car was too small to fit all of our luggage, and she had me sit on her lap on the way home. This small, kind of silly gesture, quickly broke the ice and made me feel like I was already part of her family. Some days when I was struggling with personal problems or felt homesick, I knew I could always rely on my host mom to give me advice and comfort. She only spoke Spanish so my Spanish improved very quickly while living with her. When I ate dinner she always came and sat at the table with me so I did not have to eat alone, and we discussed everything. We talked about our families, politics, hopes, and dreams. Margarita always made me feel welcome in her home, and I will always be grateful to her for that. She was an important part of my experience in Costa Rica and I hope to stay in touch with her now that I have come home. At the end of my Costa Rica trip, my mom came to visit me. One of my favorite memories is when my real mom got to meet my Costa Rican mom, because I felt like two very important people in my life were meeting each other.

Another important experience during my study abroad was taking classes at a Costa Rican university. While the instruction style was not very different from my classes here in the US, my professors were native speakers who were used to teaching classes in Spanish as the first language of their students. They spoke faster and used more complex vocabulary than my professors here. I was able to take a pronunciation class that significantly improved how I sounded when I spoke. Since Spanish is not my primary major at Ohio State, sometimes during the school year, I cannot give priority to my Spanish classes. As a result, sometimes I feel like I did not give my best effort in my classes at Ohio State. In Costa Rica, I had the opportunity to only focus on learning Spanish and I was able to put full effort into my classes. As a result, I got much more out of my classes. I felt like I learned more about both Latin American culture through my literature class and greatly improved my spoken Spanish through my phonetics class.

For the second month I spent in Costa Rica, I worked in a public nursing home. This was one of the most challenging and rewarding experiences I had both in my study abroad and in my life. Most of the residents where I worked did not have close family or friends. Many were there simply because they had nowhere else to go, and felt lonely and abandoned. Most of the residents suffered from some level of physical or mental incapacitation. Most used wheelchairs or walkers to move around. Many suffered from Alzheimers or dementia, and many were depressed. This was a challenging environment to work in, as I witnessed a lot of suffering on a day to day basis. Aging can be difficult, and when people lack support from the ones they love, it is even more difficult. Yet, in this space, the elderly loved seeing us, and were excited to talk to me everyday. I helped them with their physical therapy and served meals at the nursing home, but during my free time I was able to read to them and listen to them tell their stories. I had the privilege of listening to a wealth of stories, of incredible lives and experiences, and I could not help but be saddened that these stories were on the cusp of being lost. I returned to the United States with a newfound respect for the wisdom of the elderly, but also aware of the unique sets of challenges elderly people face. They are a vulnerable, and unfortunately, often marginalized community and I believe our society has a responsibility to take better care of them.

I want to be a physician. As we continue researching the dynamics between clinical practice, public health, and socioeconomic determinants on patient outcomes, it is becoming more and more apparent that patients are healthier when treated at patient centered practices by culturally competent physicians. Given the demographics of the United States, I think it is especially important to understand Latin American perspectives on health and to be able to communicate with patients in their native language. Studying Spanish and learning about healthcare structure and attitudes toward patient care in Costa Rica will help me better understand patients from this part of the world. I hope to take the medical translation licensing exam for Spanish when I graduate so that I will be able to communicate with my patients without a translator.

My experiences in Costa Rica have broadened my world view and helped me better understand a different language and culture. I am very grateful I had the opportunity to participate in this transformative experience.