I traveled to Costa Rica this summer to take classes at Veritas University in San José. I am studying Spanish at UTC. My goal for the trip was to increase my conversational skills and bring myself ever closer to fluency. In addition, I could gain credit toward my major in order to complete my degree. This was my first time out of the country. I was really excited to have an experience outside of my regular life and see another place outside of the United States. However, with as much preparation as I did, I quickly realized upon getting to Costa Rica that I was woefully unprepared for this experience.
When I arrived in San José everything was new: the culture, the language, the food. I had fun exploring. The first week was light because the elective class started but the language class did not until the second week. I took a history class about contemporary Latin America. I figured as long as I am learning the language I should learn the history of the region; language does not happen in a vacuum. I do not know if it was just that particular class, but the workload was enormous. I wrote so many essays; I probably wrote at least two thousand words in one month. When the language class started I felt like my brain was going to overload from all the work. The placement system for the language classes was strange. It seemed like there was the advanced level for native speakers and people who had been studying the language for years and then there was the intermediate (my level) and they just randomly shoehorned people at different levels into that one. My class had people who bumbled through every word and people who communicated pretty clearly. The system did not seem very well thought out.
At the same time that classes were happening I was slogging through culture shock. I went through the complete culture shock cycle, but the anger stage lasted the longest. I was ready to come home by the end. I have a delicate equilibrium to begin with, and everything there was just slightly different. It threw my whole equilibrium completely off and I never quite got used to anything. I was living with an older lady who did not speak any English except a few words here and there. However, I feel like I communicated with her quite well. That, I feel, is the greatest accomplishment of the trip. I handled myself quite well in a predominantly Spanish speaking country. The culture shock coupled with classes stretched my brain within an inch of snapping. It was in a state of over-stimulation and it made me irritable and stressed.
Even though I was in a constant state of stress, I did not want to stay inside on the weekends. I traveled somewhere in Costa Rica every weekend I was there. The first weekend I went to Manuel Antonio on Saturday. Manuel Antonio is on the Pacific coast. It is on the beach, but also has a biological preserve. I had the opportunity to see the wildlife of Costa Rica. On that Sunday I went La Fortuna to see the Arenal volcano. I went and soaked in the natural hot springs heated by the volcano. This was probably my favorite place. The next weekend I went to see the Irazú volcano right outside San José. It was tranquil above the clouds. The mountain country was beautiful. The next two weekends I went to Braulio Carillo National Park to see the rainforest and Isla Tortuga on a day cruise to the beach. It was relaxing, even though I got sunburned badly.
My Costa Rica experience was hard. Culture shock and classes dominated my time. However, I took little moments to try to enjoy my time and have something familiar, like a movie or a Coca-Cola. I feel like I am a lot farther down the road in my Spanish education and fluency after this experience, though. It helped deepen my understanding of the language and enhanced my conversational skills. I did not know what to expect from my first time out of the country, but the people are just people. They have their own lives and their own little worlds just like people do in the United States. It is nothing to be afraid of.
Michael Roberts is majoring in Spanish and spent 5-weeks over Summer 2019 studying abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica through a Spanish department faculty-led trip organized by CISabroad. Michael had the following to say about studying abroad, “My experience was hard. My study abroad was a month long. The classes I took were intensive. Taking classes while being immersed in a completely different culture was very taxing on my brain. It was a rewarding experience, but I didn’t know it would be so hard.”
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