Hi everyone, My name is Kerry Johnson, and I am a 2021-2022 Gilman Alumni Ambassador from Memphis, TN. I graduated from The University of Memphis in 2017. I studied economics and international studies with a minor in Spanish. As a Gilman Scholar, I studied abroad in San Jose, Costa Rica in 2017 at La Universidad de Costa Rica.
I arrived in Costa Rica in the summer of 2017 with a heart set on excelling in my Spanish courses and hoping not to quiver at the opportunity to speak Spanish with locals. As a type-A personality, I find comfort in routine and being militant in executing my goals. With that set on my mind, such an adventurous, easy-going, and tropical backdrop did not at first glance seem to suit the environment necessary for me to focus on my target. I had no plan to adhere to the phrase, “when in Rome do as the Romans do.” Or, in this case, “when in Costa Rica do as the Ticos do, mae!” Instead, I had my mission to earn excellent grades in my courses, try to remember more than cómo estás when starting a conversation, and return home to graduate that fall.
Though I earned excellent grades in those courses and engaged in conversation, the country required much more of me than those goals. Costa Rica beckoned me to pause, reflect, and not allow Pura Vida, the country’s motto, to simply wash over my psyche during my commute to class. The motto is an invitation to enjoy life and pursue a consistent state of gratitude. Pura Vida could be heard on the radio or tv; the phrase was plastered across billboards or apparel; it was everywhere. But, it is more than their motto; it is their national treasure. As I removed my earbuds and let my eyes take in the sight of the city, I made the conscious decision to be present; I felt the spirit of the culture beginning to shift my mentality. For me, Pura Vida evolved from a local worldview to a personal mantra. As a person who studied abroad with a disability, I had my fair share of dark days. Days that felt impossible to face at times. But because I freed myself to allow the culture of this beautiful country to fuse with my paradigm, I was somehow still able to see the beauty of life. Pura Vida brought me joy when in reality, it seemed as if there was not a reason to have any. I no longer solely lived by Carpe Diem but also Pura Vida.
I genuinely experienced this when classmates of mine and I went to a part of Costa Rica called Limón. This place had palm trees that swayed in the gentle breeze, crystal blue water, the constant waft of warm and vibrant aromas of Caribbean cuisine, and reggae music. It was there where I could reflect and say to myself that a kid from Memphis, TN, with low financial means, has made it here despite… Unfortunately, there is a laundry list of things that I could list as barriers and failures, but during that pause, I could reflect on all the reasons I should be filled with gratitude and enjoy my life.
Instances such as these are the beauty of studying or interning abroad. You go for one thing, and well, you more than likely leave with something completely unintended. That unintentional mantra, relationship, or memory is something you carry forever. Yes, you want to study hard for your courses or perform well while interning, but what will continue to reappear in the gallery of your memories/experiences is how that culture you embed yourself in will impact you forever. Sometimes it will draw you to an amused smile or hardy laughter or potentially tears of joy; either way, you will be grateful that you allowed yourself to experience that moment. Though Pura Vida is central to the culture of Costa Ricans, better known as Ticos/Ticas, I believe we all should take hold of this sage advice to pause, reflect, open our hearts to gratitude and enjoy our lives. As we approach the end of another dark year globally, I hope the concise yet impactful expression, Pura Vida, will bring you as much light as it has brought me.