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The UMD Costa Rica Study Abroad group and community members take a "funny face" photo in the public park where they worked earlier on the program. (Photo provided by Brooke Wetmore)

Living the Commitment to Ecology and Sustainability

Matthew Graven and Mayson Longley build stairs on a community trail in the rain forest
"The most memorable part of the trip was bonding with the kids in the town we stayed in," said Brooke Wetmore. "We played soccer in the pouring rain, made crafts, and just hung out with them. It was surprising what a great resource the kids were as we got to know how the community worked. They helped us learn Spanish!" Above: Wetmore (blue t-shirt) and Kathryn Ruesch (second from right) make origami paper cranes and paper boats with children."
A few days after the UMD students cleared the undergrowth and built these benches and this table by the river, Lauryn Flavin and her host family spent the day picnicking and playing games at the site. " It was a wonderful feeling to have made a place that was so very much appreciated," she said.
Caitlin Nielson
Kathryn Ruesch

UMD Students traveled to Costa Rica in January to learn about environmental practices.

Costa Rica is ranked among the top countries in the world for its culture of environmental stability and sustainable practices. Eleven students at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD) had the opportunity to explore this Central American country in a three-week study abroad program in Costa Rica over winter break. The students were: Jennifer Basham, Kelly Brinker, Lauryn Flavin, Jessica Lee Frankovich, Matthew Graven, Mayson Longley, Caitlin Nielson, Anna Norcutt-Preuss, Kathryn Ruesch, Erica Strom, and Brooke Wetmore.

The program started in San Jose, the capital city, where students studied the Spanish language. The second part of the trip took place in El Silencio near the coastal city of Quepos, where students lived with host families at an agricultural cooperative.

Costa Rica leads the way

Michelle Hargrave, director of the Office of Civic Engagement, one of the program leaders, developed the program concept. “Costa Rica is a distinctly unique and vibrant country leading the way in sustainability and conservation efforts,&rdquot; she said. Almost all Costa Rica’s electricity generation comes from hydroelectric and wind power. Because local food production is abundant, costs for basic items are affordable for almost everyone.

"After I studied there 15 years ago, I wanted UMD students to have an opportunity to explore the wonders of Costa Rica. I wanted to create a transformational experience that would transcend the traditional tourist activities. We knew an integrated experience with grit, and cultural understanding would engage student’s curiosity and motivate them to be active global citizens. I think we did it!" Students had the opportunity to learn about many of Costa Rica’s sustainability efforts from hydroelectric power to local food production.

Language and Service Learning

The group was able to immerse themselves in the language and culture of Costa Rica. Mayson Longley appreciated the opportunity to learn Spanish."We miss out on talking to people when there is a language barrier, and we often just give up trying to communicate," he said.

In Quepos, students were active in service learning. They built hiking trails and stairs in the rain forest. They created a park by first clearing the undergrowth and then building a table and benches. They worked on a community park, cleaning and painting lines on the athletic courts, and they worked with the children. They also cleaned and repaired community-run facilities at a wildlife rehabilitation center that cared for monkeys, birds and other wildlife.

Jennifer Basham said the most memorable part of the program was working as a group. "We all took turns with hammers, shovels, and paint brushes," she said. "Students, professors, El Silencio members, volunteers, and children of the community worked, sweated, and laughed in solidarity. We were without hierarchy. Together we understood the task to be done, shouldered rakes and recycled wood boards, and snaked up the steep hills into the steamy rain forest. We dug stairs into an eroded trail and built benches at the waterfall for those to come after us. We did not just visit Costa Rica. We were touched by her and her people."

A New Way to see the World

David Syring, associate professor in the Department of Sociology/Anthropology and one of the program leaders said, "I’m an anthropologist and I know how much it changed me to live with families in another country, rather than as a tourist. Creating this opportunity for people to experience what I’ve experienced was really important."

“I know from their journals and our conversations, this trip transformed the way the students perceived themselves and the way they see the world," Syring said. "They lived in a community that doesn’t have as much as we have. Costa Ricans have to recycle and practice sustainability, because they don’t have a choice."

Longley agreed. "In El Silencio we were able to help a community. Connecting with them was by far the most amazing part of the trip," he said. "So many of us are blocked off from the rest of the world. The world is huge; much greater than the bubble we've grown up in. I learned there are SO many different ways of doing things, and the United States does it only one way."

Do Your Best

Brooke Wetmore, a sophomore majoring in urban/regional studies said she didn't really know what to expect when she was planning for the program. The adventure was beyond her expectations and she encourages others to study abroad. "Don't let fear or worry keep you from doing anything," is Wetmore's advice. "Just do your personal best. I learned that people are completely satisfied with that. Whether it's speaking another language, building trails in the rain forest, or rafting down a river, leave the worry behind and give it your all."

Praise for UMD Students

Cristina Soto Trejos, director of the Costa Rican Language Academy had praise for the UMD group. "It was wonderful to see their transformation after 22 days in Costa Rica," she said. "I can’t believe they were the same kids that when I met them hardly spoke a few words in Spanish, that were scared to meet their host families, that [seemed like] foreign tourists in this country. Yesterday I was amazed to hear them chatting in Spanish." Trejos was also impressed with the students' knowledge of sustainability and how to care for the environment. She said the students are now "global citizens and aware of so many things... tourists are clueless about."

Building Relationships

"Real life learning" is what Basham called the program. "We shared our lives, which is truly deeper than any tourist experience. In Costa Rica I learned about their understanding of family, community, and Mother Nature. That wisdom is much deeper than anything I have experienced before."

Syring said, "I wanted us to have an experience that would open the top of our heads. It did that and more. It opened our hearts."

Video's from the Costa Rica program
Program Montage
Singing "Home"





Story by Cheryl Reitan, Irene Hanson and Ellie Neigebauer. February, 2014.

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UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan, creitan@d.umn.edu

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