For my STEP Signature Project, I studied abroad for the spring semester in San Jose, Costa Rica at Veritas University. Through living with a host family and taking Spanish classes at the university, I was able to improve my Spanish language skills, while being immersed in the Costa Rican culture.
Through my STEP Signature Project, I learned a lot about myself, my assumptions and how the United States is perceived around the world. I learned about what I truly value and what I find happiness and joy in. I learned that I can survive and/or thrive in an environment where I know no one and where Spanish is the primary language spoken. In addition, I learned about racial stereotyping and prejudices that exist all across Latin America that I thought were mainly problems in the United States. I also learned that you cannot judge anyone before you get to know them. Lastly, I learned that the government actions of the United States affect the whole world and affect how people from other parts of the world affect those from the US.
My personal development stemmed from the nature of the program in itself. When someone studies abroad, he/she is thrown into an unknown environment where they are basically living on their own for a few months. While being in Costa Rica, I quickly found that I had much more time to myself than I was used to. At Ohio State, I live with 9 of my best friends in one house, whereas in Costa Rica I lived with one other student, who stuck to himself for the most part. This gave me an opportunity to read, do yoga, and exercise on my own, giving me a lot of freedom to reflect on my independence and self development. Also, neither of my host parents spoke English, which provided me with an amazing chance to practice my Spanish at every meal and every time I was passing through the house. The Spanish at home paired with independent travel on the weekends showed me that I could really function easily in an environment where English was not the primary language spoken. Since I am a Spanish major, this was a pleasant confidence boost and sign that I should continue to develop my passion and love for Spanish.
I also had several experiences that contributed to a change in my assumptions about people and the world. First, I learned that discrimination is not something that just the United States is guilty of, but instead an inherent reaction to new and different people. From spending time with my host parents in the center of downtown San Jose, I quickly realized the prejudices that they had against Nicaraguans, who are constantly migrating into Costa Rica from the North because of few regulations at the border. Also, through a Spanish class I took called “Cultural Heritage in Latin America,” I learned about the discrimination against indigenous and African people throughout all of Latin America and how the Spanish colonization of the Americas have greatly influenced the religious tendencies and cultures in the region through the present day.
I also want to discuss how my perception of my roommate completely changed during the three months that I lived with him. When he moved in on January 5th, I was incredibly nervous and skeptical for how the semester would turn out. It seemed like we had nothing in common, a 6-year age difference, and he knew absolutely zero Spanish. However, after a semester of bonding through discussions about religion, vegetarian diets, and everything in between, my roommate became my best friend. Since being back in the US, I can truly say that I miss him more than anyone else that I met in Costa Rica, and it taught me the lesson of not judging anyone before you really get to know them.
Lastly, my views changed regarding the rest of the world and more specifically how the United States is perceived. In one of my first classes in Costa Rica, I was dumbfounded to discover that the United States referring to themselves as “America,” instead of the combination of the North, Central, and South American continents is one of the many ways that the US gives off a condescending appearance to much of Latin America and the world. In the same class about cultural heritage, I learned a lot about United States’ involvement in lots of Latin American countries civil wars and conflicts, and a lot of the effects that it caused in the region. I also saw how the wastefulness of the United States was viewed in a society with a lot less wealth and fewer economic opportunities. Another benefit that I gained from being in Costa Rica was learning about all of the environmentally beneficial programs and processes they have in place, like using over 90% renewable energy, limiting when citizens can drive their cars, and giving tax breaks to people with electric cars. I learned about sustainable food practices and how we can combat climate change, all of which I am hoping to bring back to Ohio State to help invoke change in our country as well.
These transformations are valuable in my life for a multitude of reasons. My increased self-awareness will be incredibly useful in my relationships in the future and helping me decide which career path I go down, which company I work for, and in which activities I decide to engage in the future. I think increased awareness about prejudice and judgement can be helpful in any and every situation to make sure that you are accepting to everyone and tolerant in all circumstances, especially in the workplace. Finally, I think learning more about US international relations and how they are perceived is extremely useful. The US population is only 4.4% of the total world, and learning about how our actions is extremely important when talking to people from other cultures and backgrounds. Especially since I want to work in the Peace Corps or teach English in another country, all of this increased awareness and experience will be extremely helpful and beneficial going forward.