Costa Rica - New Friends, New Perspectives Past Review

By (Biology/Environmental Studies, Gonzaga University) for

The School for Field Studies / SFS: Costa Rica – Ecological Resilience Studies

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
I feel I gained a larger cultural understanding, considering that going on this program was my first time outside of the United States. Being around individuals with similar environmental motives and interests was very beneficial for this experience, and the research I did during my DR class helped shape my overall interests. Before the program I was leaning toward a more biological approach to my future jobs, but after learning about the potential for sustainable development I am more willing to focus my efforts in this direction. I learned more about myself on this program; I am more daring and independent that I had originally thought, and very capable of cultural adjustment.

Personal Information

How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 0-2 weeks

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

The workload was comparable to my home university, yet due to the structured nature of the program, I didn't feel there was as much time to complete assignments as I would have liked. The teaching methods were very thorough and relied heavily on field lectures, readings, discussions, small group activities, field trips and hands-on research. The classes were difficult, yet very informative; grading was reasonable and good grades were managable, so long as you apply yourself. Additionally, the professors are all extremely approachable and willing to meet outside of class time to help with conceptual issues and homework assignments.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

The administration in this program was well-organized yet not as efficient as I would have liked. They were very helpful when situations arose and were able to problem solve, but on a day-to-day basis not overly helpful. Part of the reason I believe this is the case is because the semester I was in Costa Rica at the Atenas field station, SFS was also establishing another Costa Rica program for the first time ever in Manu. I feel like they needed to address this issue better, as the program would have worked more smoothly had they been able to focus their entire efforts on Atenas (rather than creating Manu in addition to Atenas).

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

Campus is located in a small, peaceful neighborhood outside of a small town. Location was ideal, as everything needed on a daily basis was located on campus, yet it was only a 5 minute cab ride into town for access to nightlife, groceries, etc. I experienced a homestay weekend (rather than a week or entire semester) and during this time, I felt welcomed into their family and treated as a guest.

* Food:

This program is focused on sustainability, and following this concept, many of the meals offered are vegetarian. This is not a bad thing, as meat options are available most days, but the diet does take some getting used to. Lots of rice and beans. In terms of other dining locations, there were suprisingly more "American-ish" food options in town that I would have expected, such as fried chicken and pizza. Make sure you go to el mercado for fresh produce and delicious sandwiches. Also, don't shy away from ceviche as it looks scary but is soooo good.

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

This program is very field-based in that while a good portion of the semester is spent on campus in traditional classroom style lectures, SFS takes its students on field trips all over the country. The very first weekend, we spent three days at a biological field station far from campus, where we went hiking through forests, learned mist netting techniques, and were able to experience a unique and biodiverse ecosystem firsthand. Throughout the course of the semester, we took field trips to Tirimbina, Santa Rosa National Park, Monteverde, Volcán Poás National Park, Carara National Park, and San Jose (just to name a few places). We also took a week long trip to Panama where we toured Panama City, the surrounding forest areas, the Panama Canal, and had a chance to experience the differences in culture from Costa Rica. (Usually SFS Costa Rica takes its week-long field trip to Nicaragua, but due to the political disagreements between Nicaragua and Costa Rica stemming from the border dispute, we went to Panama instead which turned out to be a great experience.) In addition to school-organized field trips, students were given the opportunity to explore other parts of the country during three free weekends and a week for spring break. These opportunities allowed for additional travel experiences with friends.

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

* Safety:

While I was warned about a few dangerous parts of San Jose and Limon (on the Caribbean coast), I always felt perfectly safe in the small town of Atenas (45 min outside of San Jose). This town is large enough to where products and resources are readily accessible (multiple grocery stores, clothing stores, banks, restaurants, etc.), but small enough where you can easily walk across town in less thn ten minutes. This small-town feel made me feel very safe, especially because we were able to make friends with some of the locals and I was always able to see a familiar face in town. In terms of health concerns, I did get sick twice on the trip and I was able to go to the doctor in town (accompanied by a staff member from campus who translated Spanish for me) and promptly get the medication I needed. I was on malaria pills during my entire semester, although in retrospect they were unnecessary (many of my friends didn't take them and were fine; the area of Costa Rica this program is based out of does not have any cases of malaria).

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? Yes


* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)


* Did your program have a foreign language component? Yes
If applicable, to what degree did your living situation aid your language acquisition?

Language acquisition improvement?

Spanish classes were offered twice weekly for the majority of the program, however I would have found it more helpful if these classes had been offered daily for shorter periods of time. (Ex: daily 45 min sessions rather than 2x weekly 2 hour sessions.) On campus, the professors are all bilingual (which makes sense as all courses are taught in English), but many of the staff members are native Costa Ricans who speak only Spanish. In this sense, the program approaches the Spanish-speaking aspect as "you'll get as much out of it as you put into it." At many meals (a few times every week), my classmates and myself would designate a table in the kitchen as the "Spanish table" in which anyone sitting at that table could only speak Spanish for the duration of the meal. Additionally, for me personally, I helped teach English to a maintenence worker on campus twice every week. These sessions helped me improve my Spanish speaking skills, as I often had to explain concepts about the English language to my student in Spanish. Overall, my conversational speaking skills improved, yet I would attribute this improvement primarily to my own efforts, rather than what the program requires.

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Dorm
  • Host Family
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Americans

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • Directed Research project
  • Living situation
  • Friendships formed
* What could be improved?
  • Regimented schedule
  • Internet on campus was unreliable
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? This program is very self-selecting. It is an environmental studies program with an emphasis on field experience, so I would definitely recommend it to outdoorsy people and those with a vested interest in sustainable development. People who are willing to step outside of their comfort zone to take in the surrounding culture and meet new people would do well in this program. Both self-motivated individuals and those who work well in groups would both benefit, as SFS does an excellent job of incorporating both into their learning environment.

Individual Course Reviews

Course Name/Rating:

Directed Research

Course Department: EE 491 or 492
Instructor: Dr. Edgardo Arevalo
Instruction Language: English
Comments: This course was the culmination of the semester, with the focus being a week of intensive research and the development of a thorough research paper about the same subject. This was a challenging course, but easily the most rewarding and my favorite part of the semester. My research group studied offsite, which required a week-long hotel stay in a different region of Costa Rica. The nature of the study required daily hiking and trips to Carara National Park for hands-on data collection. My professor ensured that everyone in my small group (nine students) had ample opportunities to participate in data collection and he was a valuable resource for both conducting the research and writing the final paper. I highly recommend this course.
Credit Transfer Issues: Yes, but this was an issue easily remedied with my own registrar's office (not a problem with the credit transfer system).
Course Name/Rating:

Economic & Ethical Issues in Sustainable Development

Course Department: EE(SS) 303
Instructor: Dr. Sergio Molina
Instruction Language: English
Comments: This course transferred to my home institution as "Environmental Economics," but I would have much rather taken that course than this one. I found the lecturing style to be dull, and while the content was interesting, it was never enough to keep my attention. This course also used the country of Costa Rica as its sole example for economic and ethical issues, but it would have been nice to compare the status of Costa Rica with other countries.
Credit Transfer Issues: Yes, but this was an issue easily remedied with my own registrar's office (not a problem with the credit transfer system).
Course Name/Rating:

Tropical Ecology and Sustainable Development

Course Department: EE(NS) 377
Instructor: Dr. Edgardo Arevalo
Instruction Language: English
Comments: THis course focused on the workings of tropical ecosystems and was structured similar to any biology class I have ever taken. Much of the material was new for me, however I found it overlapped with traditional ecology courses quite a bit. Field lectures for this course were compelling, as we were able to sit in the middle of a mangrove forest while talking about how mangroves function. Edgardo is a brilliant professor and taught this course very well.
Credit Transfer Issues: Yes, but this was an issue easily remedied with my own registrar's office (not a problem with the credit transfer system).
Course Name/Rating:

Principles of Resource Management

Course Department: EE(NS) 374
Instructor: Dr. Achim Hager
Instruction Language: English
Comments: This course discussed the implications of current development on Costa Rica, and how natural resources should be managed efficiently to best achieve sustainable development. We discussed many international policy regulations and initatives that have been implemented or are currently being debated, and what this will mean for the use of natural resources. This course was fascinating and taught by a wonderfully quotable and likable professor. Highly recommend.
Credit Transfer Issues: Yes, but this was an issue easily remedied with my own registrar's office (not a problem with the credit transfer system).