Name: Bonnie LaGrange
Type of Project: Education Abroad
For my STEP project, I studied abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica through ISA. I stayed with a host family, took classes at Veritas University, and volunteered at Parque La Libertad, in order to improve my Spanish and get a taste for daily Costa Rican life. We also went on excursions to better understand the culture of Costa Rica.
Studying abroad in Costa Rica was undoubtedly a transformational experience in my life, both personally and academically. My confidence increased immensely, throughout my time in Costa Rica, both in terms of speaking Spanish and in a more general sense. I noticed myself speaking Spanish more frequently and more fluently not only because I was learning new grammar or vocabulary but also because I felt capable. I also noticed myself becoming braver and more adventurous in my decisions. I was more willing to step outside of my comfort zone to meet new people, have new experiences, and learn.
I don’t think studying abroad completely changed my view of the world, but rather it expanded it. I realized the world is much more complex than I had ever imagined (and I had always found it complex). I encountered so many people with various perspectives, backgrounds, attitudes, and personalities, which lended to this complexity. One of the things, I loved most about studying abroad were the encounters I had with people and hearing their perspectives. I’ve gained a new appreciation for the beautiful complexity of our world and for listening to people’s stories, opinions, and perspectives. I also learned a lot about how culture permeates our everyday lives. The culture we’re immersed in changes the ways we see the world around us. Living in Costa Rica and being acclimated to “Tico” (what Costa Ricans call themselves) culture gave me an opportunity to change the way I look at the world. For instance, I can see life as much more relaxed now, as Costa Ricans tend to have a calmer disposition towards time (being late for social activities is very acceptable in Costa Rica).
Living with my host family was probably the most transformational part of my experience. My host mom, María, made our homestay truly feel like home. However, María didn’t speak English, so in order to communicate with her, my roommate and I spoke a lot of Spanish. Her patience and desire to help us learn allowed us to take risks when speaking Spanish and thus grow in our ability and confidence to speak Spanish. Living with María also taught us a lot about Costa Rican culture, as we were living in it day to day. The word I think I heard María say most was “tranquilo”, which means calm; whether we were asking how her day was or apologizing for something, the answer was always “tranquilo”. This is a definite reflection of the calm or “pura vida” (a phrase Costa Ricans use very frequently, which means “pure life”, but can be used for any good vibes) attitude in Costa Rica. Living with María, we were able to embrace this lifestyle.
Another specific event that helped me gain confidence and courage in stepping outside of my comfort zone was a daytrip with Cristianos en Marcha (CEM). CEM is a Christian community for college students, which a friend had recommended to me. I decided to send them a message to see what kind of meetings or events they had. Since the University of Costa Rica wasn’t starting classes until March, for most of my semester there, they didn’t have many events or meetings. One weekend in March, however, they were having a fun activity/field trip to Cartago, a province nearby San Jose. They invited me to come with them, so I decided to go. I showed up at their meeting building alone, knowing no one there. I felt really nervous because I was with a group of strangers who were (almost) all native Spanish speakers. The people there were really friendly, though, and they spent time talking to me and getting to know me. This event was super encouraging because, although I had to continuously choose to step out of my comfort zone for 8+ hours, it paid off. Later the next week, I ran into a friend I had made at the CEM trip and he invited me to their welcome event! Not only did this help me feel like I had a life in Costa Rica, but it gave me encouragement to keep doing things that were out of my comfort zone.
One of my small favorite things about my time abroad was talking to Uber drivers. In San Jose, taking Uber was one of the best ways for us to travel safely, quickly, and cheaply, so we took them often. I usually tried to make conversation with my Uber drivers to practice Spanish and to make the drives less awkward. Through those conversations, I met so many interesting people and learned so many things about Costa Rica and the world that broadened my perspective. I met marathon runners, world travelers, immigrants (from Cuba, Nicaragua, etc.), environment enthusiasts, grocery store owners, etc. One of my favorite conversations was with the marathon runner, whose name I sadly forget. He told me that people in Costa Rica love Costa Rica and that they choose to be happy, regardless of circumstances. But, he also talked about the social problems and poverty he witnessed. He talked about how much he loved the United States, but how he didn’t understand the problems we have with mass shootings.In this conversation, and in many other conversations with Uber drivers, fellow volunteers, and professors, I became more aware of new perspectives and the complexities of the world.
Finally, one day I got to help volunteer at a safe house for women on the street (mainly prostitutes). We served them breakfast and brought supplies to decorate canvas bags, which were filled with toiletries. The women were such a diverse group and had such a range of experiences. Many of them had really creative, beautiful bags and many included Bible verses and Christian song lyrics on their bags. They were kind, grateful women, and it really taught me to keep an open mind towards all people, regardless of their circumstances. It also re-convicted me of the inherent dignity and worth of every person, and how much each person deserves love and respect.
Personally, learning how to be more confident, adventurous, and open to new perspectives, will help me to have better experiences and relationships in the future. Learning how to take good risks will give me more opportunities and help me to grow and succeed more. Additionally, my experience abroad allows me to share new perspectives and ideas with people around me. Academically and professionally, being more proficient and confident in Spanish will be extremely beneficial to my ability to participate in and learn from my remaining Spanish classes. Additionally, I want to be a high school Spanish teacher, so my time abroad will allow me to immerse my
students more in the culture and language, by sharing personal experiences abroad and speaking more fluently.
I blogged about my experience, while I was in Costa Rica! Here is the link to that blog: https://bonbonblogs.home.blog/