In June of 2023, I spent part of my summer in the Central Valley of Costa Rica learning about coffee, chocolate, and food sustainability. I stayed at the School for Field Studies (SFS) center in Atenas, Costa Rica, with 23 other students from across the country. My time there was far from the traditional learning environment that I have been accustomed to.
During the first week, we spent some time learning about the history of Costa Rica and agricultural production, particularly with coffee and chocolate as case studies. With this information, we went on many field trips to new and interesting places across Costa Rica. Our first trip, and one of my favorites, was to El Toledo coffee farm, where we talked to the local Calderon family who taught us about their organic practices and view on Organic certifications. We learned to trust local farmers over trusting a label on a package, and how small farmers cannot always afford the expenses that come with costly certifications. This experience, along with the many others after it, opened my eyes to the realities of balancing sustainability, tourism, and economics. El Toledo, which practiced organic agriculture despite not being able to afford an Organic label, does so for health reasons and they have a diverse array of coffee products they sell to make up for decreased production. El Toledo and all of the other farms we went to offer tours as another way to increase income and spread their knowledge.
As an environmental science student, the knowledge from these farms on how they are doing their part to be environmentally responsible is invaluable. Not to mention, I was able to try a lot of freshly made, quality coffee and chocolate products at almost every farm we visited. Since being back, my time abroad has inspired me to be more aware of where my food comes from, and I now visit the Chattanooga farmers market for many of my groceries.
While this experience taught me much about Costa Rica and sustainable agriculture, I also learned much about myself. I learned that I can go to a place I have never been before with 23 random people and have a great time. I found friends I didn’t know I would make. I went into the program nervous if I would get along with the other students or if I would become homesick and end up sabotaging myself for what could be a great time. Yet, it is no exaggeration to say that everyone I met there is someone I could easily consider a friend. Four weeks felt like months for how much I learned and how close I felt with everyone. Going to a new place with all new people made me anxious at first, but it was definitely worth it.
Another thing that was worth it was planning extra things to do and taking those opportunities to explore. Some of my favorite moments were the self-planned trips me and other students went on during our weekends off from the center. One weekend we traveled to Manuel Antonio, one of Costa Rica’s national parks on the Pacific coast. These moments truly felt like a vacation in paradise; I swam at a beautiful white sandy beach, learned how to surf (somewhat successfully), and saw amazing wildlife such as Capuchin monkeys. Our schedule during the week was rigorous; we would wake up for a 7am breakfast and have field trips almost every other day. Yet, I never regretted pushing myself to enjoy everything that I could and make the most out of every minute. Even just going to the local grocery store Coopeatenas or the local bar La Trilla was an adventure where I could improve my Spanish and try new foods and drinks.
Another field trip we went on was to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, where we stayed in a hostel and attended Pride- getting to experience this in Costa Rica really made me happy, and I found solidarity with people from another country in a way I didn’t know I would.
All in all, before my trip I remember reading many other study abroad students’ stories on how their experience was amazing, life-changing, something they would never forget. And I’m happy to report they were right. As an environmental scientist, Costa Rica was the perfect place for me to experience so much biodiversity and beautiful landscapes. Whether you’re athletic or not, if you love the outdoors this is the program for you.
Kel Kaczmarek (BS Environmental Science) spent the Summer 2023 semester studying abroad in Atenas, Costa Rica through The School for Field Studies. Kel had the following to say about studying abroad, “In the end, no matter where you go, you will find something new and interesting as long as your eyes are open to see it. Put in the effort to become close with the people there and explore everything you can. Take moments for yourself to rejuvenate, then get back to exploring because everything you experience will be something you’ll never forget. And always remember to have fun!”
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