For my STEP project, I traveled to Guanacaste, Costa Rica for a service-learning experience. I lived in a home-base with fellow volunteers. I volunteered mt time in a local daycare preparing daily lessons to teach to the children, providing attention and companionship to all, teaching new songs and dances, and assisting the teachers with anything they needed such as serving breakfast and lunch.
As I have matured into the adult that I am today, people have always told me that I am a natural leader and a very independent person. I believed this to a small extent, but since I had lived in the same place for 21 years, I thought I had just mastered living in Columbus, Ohio.
This trip was my first time flying alone and only my second time flying anywhere. I immediately felt very independent as soon as I left my family in the airport. My connecting flight went smooth, but the final flight over to Costa Rica was where my independent nature really shined out to me. As the flight neared Costa Rica, the crew notified the passengers that there was a pothole in the airport’s runway and that our flight was being diverted to a Nicaraguan airport. I did not really think of this situation as more than a minor inconvenience. I figured my flight would just land a few hours later than it was originally planned to do. Unfortunately, the airport had no internet or service, so I had no way of communicating with my family or the staff that was picking me up at the airport. I was able to stay calm as our rolling delay was becoming longer, and longer. Soon approaching four hours of sitting on the aircraft, the crew came on the speaker notifying us that they were making us stay the night in a hotel. Still unable to communicate with anyone, I was a little nervous. I also knew that Nicaragua was not the safest place to travel, but I was hopeful in myself that I would be just fine. Upon arriving in Nicaragua, the hotel staff were very friendly, but I was still having trouble getting connected with my family and the staff trying to pick me up from the airport. The hotel staff did not speak a lick of English and they were unable to understand what I was asking when I was asking for help trying to call my loved ones. I finally got a few minutes of internet connection on my phone, long enough to contact my parents and the staff waiting for me at the airport. Other than that, I was all alone, in an unsteady country, with no means of communication, with a few strangers I had recently made friends with on the plane. I was impressed with how calm and levelheaded I had remained through this whole situation. I sat down by the pool that nigh to relax a little when another young woman who was also traveling alone sat down next to me and said “You know, we’re pretty awesome. Think about how brave and resilient we are traveling alone and being thrown into this situation and not even flinching. We are strong.” I hadn’t really thought about it until that moment. That conversation allowed for me to reflect on myself and see how independent I truly am. Because of this conversation, I have noticed myself, in Costa Rica and back at home, being less fearful of times when I need to do thing by myself because I know that I can handle anything that life throws at me.
Another value that I came to truly see in myself from this trip is leadership. I had been varsity soccer captain, leader of a mentor group for college students, leader of a group for young girls, and on the executive board for a club at my university. I had been a leader my whole, life I just didn’t really feel it. The daycare setting was stressful in Costa Rica. The language barrier was really holding me back. During my first week, I felt as if I wasn’t making any impact on the people around me. One night, I was thinking about the daycare and evaluating my feelings of frustration. I decided that since I was having a difficult time communicating verbally, that I needed to find another way to communicate. I figured my best bet was to be enthusiastic with my body language and facial expressions. This immediately started to work. I felt as if I was making better connections and relationships with the kids. I kept doing this for the remainder of my time in the daycare with the always-changing group of volunteers. During my last week in Costa Rica, the president of the program came up to me and thanked me for being such a great leader to all. He said he appreciated how enthusiastic I was and keeping the morale high. He mentioned that I was a great teacher to all the new volunteers coming in each week and that I showed an awesome example of how they want their volunteers to interact while at their service site. I thanked him for his nice compliment and then I did not really think much of it after that. The next evening, I called my mother to catch up and tell her things about my trip. I mentioned the compliment I received the previous day. She stopped me and said “Erin, do you understand how awesome that is?” I sat back and thought about it more deeply. Then I realized, wow, I am completely out of my element, in a different country, speaking a native language, with people I have never met, and my leadership skills still shine to others around me. I was dealing with being homesick, having anxiety, and not feeling good while traveling, as many do, and I was still able to have great leadership qualities. Out of all my leadership experiences, I think that this is my best one. I think this because I wasn’t even trying to be a leader. I went to Costa Rica with the mindset that I was just there to help and learn of a new culture. I wasn’t trying to outshine anyone or take control of any situation, my natural personality trait allows for me to show as a leader to others.
Traveling abroad was eye-opening in many ways. Observing and living in a new country was a great experience and it was fun to compare the United States with Costa Rica. Some of my favorite conversations were with local people about their cultures and exchanging conversations about my culture. The conversations usually ended up in a lot of laughing just because some of the things we do is so different from each other! From these conversations I realized that most people living in Costa Rica are fluent in Spanish and English. Most people are unable to get jobs if they are not also fluent in English because they have so many American visitors. I was so shocked by this. I think that this is something that Americans should also do. I think it would be very beneficial for Americans to be fluent in another language because it would encourage Americans to travel to new countries and encourage more people to travel to the United States. I think one reason why so many Americans travel to places such as Costa Rica is because their native people speak English, which makes it easier for people to communicate and explore their country. Tourism is a huge economy for Costa Rica. I talked to many natives that go to college and learn skills to work in a place of tourism. Natives of Costa Rica value tourism. They love learning from every tourist they encounter and the enjoy showing them the beauty of their country. I think that learning another language such as Spanish would allow for a new appreciation for diversity in the United States. Not only would it allow for a growth in economy for the United States, but I think that Americans would learn so much about other countries from the tourists and learn to love and show off the country they live in, just as natives of Costa Rica have.
One evening in while I was visiting Costa Rica, my friend and I were walking around in the central square of Santa Cruz. We encountered a group of young men and we started conversing with them. My friend was fluent in Spanish and one of the young men was fluent in English. We had a very long conversation with them that night. It was great to have fluent speaking people in both languages because everyone could be included in the conversation with translations. We talked to them about politics, food, school, relationships, family, jobs, and so much more. Both groups learned a lot that night about a different country. After this meaningful conversation, I concluded that it is so important to be able to communicate with as many people as possible. Those young men had no idea they were going to run into us Americans in their local park that night. If they couldn’t speak English, we wouldn’t be able to communicate and learned everything we did.
These realizations of my independence and leadership qualities will help me as I finish school and prepare to attend graduate school for occupational therapy. I will need to exemplify these qualities in all my applications and interviews. Schools look for these qualities so that they can ensure their students are above and beyond. Independence and leadership are qualities that all occupational therapists should boast because they are always working with an integrated team of medical professionals. They need to be able to share ideas and defend treatments for their patients. I think that my recognition of these qualities will allow for me to be successful in my future career.
Becoming more culturally aware of the world has always been a personal goal for me. I think that my trip to Costa Rica was a good way to dip my feet in the waters and has boosted my desire to travel and learn of more countries. Upon returning from Costa Rica, I aspire to learn and become fluent in Spanish. Then I would love to travel to other Spanish-speaking countries and learn of their culture. I will now be able to compare their lives to what I have learned in Costa Rica. I think that this will allow for me to live a humbler and fulfilling life in America. All these insights I have acquired on my trip to Costa Rica will better my life in my school, career, and personal life. I would not have been able to do this without the help of STEP and I will always be grateful for the transformation I have undergone during this experience.