“Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance. Nothing is yours except the essential things – air, sleep, dreams, the sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” – Cesare Pavese
“You are constantly off balance”. Indeed, I am.
Let’s be honest here. In the first few weeks of studying abroad I have encountered obstacles I never imagined stumbling across. I had been preparing to travel to India for the past six months. India?! I thought this post was about Costa Rica, you might ask. Well, it is. Let me catch you up:
I had just landed in Leh, India, in the northern region of the Himalayan country side. Thrilled, nervous, but most importantly, excited about the opportunity of being able to volunteer for a non-profit organization.
Well, dreams sometimes are shattered faster than they’re created.
Culture shock, jetlag, and altitude sickness did not come as a surprise to me. I was mentally prepared for what this novel country was going to throw at me, I think. Those things did not affect me whatsoever. However, it was rather the level of carelessness, unprofessionalism, and lack of respect, not from the country, not from its people, but from the individual who I had gladly agreed to travel halfway across the world to volunteer for. That’s what shook me up the most.
I will deviate from upsetting you with the negative, and I will tell you that even negative experiences provide positive learning lessons. Being completely alone (and I mean that literally) in a country I had never traveled to before, with a language I had no understanding of, with no family, friends, communication, or even someone to guide me through the unknown, made me feel completely vulnerable, completely striped down to just me and my ability to survive. It made me appreciate not the materialistic things in life, but rather the spiritual and the emotional. It made me appreciate the love and the care I received from my friends, from my family, my teachers, and my mentors. It opened my eyes to the power of benevolence, of selflessness, and of compassion that I received from my loved ones.
Cesar Pavese is right.
Now, 16 days later, I am in a new country, experiencing a new culture, savoring delicious local food, dancing to the rhythm of music played in the street, and overall enjoying the little things I never thought I’d miss; the love and the warmth from the people I encounter. I must note, India is an incredible country. The cultural differences present make you see your current life in the United States as something from another world. It is a shame that I had to depart, but I am confident I will be able to return sometime soon in the future. But for now, it is time to focus on the present, and make the most out of every experience here in Costa Rica. My video blogs will provide more of an insight of what I am doing, make sure to check them out 🙂
Hello from Houston,
As I reflect on my time as a Gilman scholar in Costa Rica, I think one of the greatest aspects I learned from my community in Heredia was a sense of humility. In my opinion, one of the most important reasons anyone should choose to study abroad is to learn how to connect to all people through a shared mutual respect. On my final exam for my Spanish course, the professor had us write an essay on what we felt had changed us most during our time studying abroad in Costa Rica. I reflected on how my perspective had changed on childhood memories I had of children in my grade school courses. I remember one student in my class who never spoke up and how some students would taunt him. It wasn’t until I had been put in similar situations of not being able to verbalize and speak my thoughts that I could perceive empathy for this child. After being that person who was sometimes silenced not by lack of intellectual capacity but rather lack of language skills, I definitely appreciate the courage it takes for other people who come to the United States without the ability to communicate in English.
I have been back in the United States for a little over a week now. I officially graduated from the University of Houston with my degree last Thursday and it has been incredibly surreal to think I completed both my program in Costa Rica and my undergraduate degree. I cannot stop asking myself where the time has gone.
The highlight of my return has definitely been celebrating graduation with my family. My siblings and my parents were all lucky enough to get off work to see me walk and to also go to a celebratory dinner. It’s moments like that when I can’t believe how lucky I am to have such a supportive family. I have been so happy to be spending much-needed time with them.
Of course I also sent several photos of my graduation to my host mom in Costa Rica. She showered me in affection and congratulated me. I miss her so much already. How sweet she was to send me off with a coffee mug and a photo of us because she knows how much I love coffee. And a few weeks before leaving Costa Rica, she threw me a birthday party for my 23rd birthday! She baked me a pineapple upside down cake, and lasagna and played a CD with birthday songs to sing me happy birthday. I can’t believe she did all of that for me. I’m so grateful for having had such an incredible host mom who always made me feel safe, happy, loved and took care of me like her own daughter throughout my time in Costa Rica. I’ll treasure my moments with Mayela forever.
In terms of reverse culture shock, I’ve had my share of a few moments. I had become so accustomed to kissing people on the cheek when greeting them in Costa Rica that it took me two times of doing that here before I instantly became self-conscious for having done it. Luckily my friends and I laughed about it but I won’t be doing that again! The second aspect has been seeing physical changes to familiar places and people. I learned recently that my favorite tea place in Houston had been closed down. It was especially saddening because I had always associated it with my time as a student at University of Houston.
As of now, I am a proud alumni of the Gilman Scholarship Program and the University of Houston. With the language skills I’ve learned abroad, I will continue to work toward the common good in meaningful ways in the mental health field. I have been applying for mental health aid positions in psychiatric clinics where I know my Spanish would be used to serve people in the Spanish speaking populations. I’m hopeful within the coming years I can complete my prerequisites for a health professional school where I can continue toward my dream of being a bilingual psychiatric professional. I look forward to the long journey ahead with excitement for my future.
On a closing note, it has been such an honor writing for the Gilman Global Experience blog. There is no possible way I could have studied abroad without Gilman. Thank you so much for everything!
Warmest Wishes to All,
Culture shock is the really yucky part of the cultural immersion experience that happens to most people at some point. It’s the point during study abroad where a person may face information overload or begin feeling especially frustrated with adjusting to different aspects of a new culture such as a language barrier. With 29 more days remaining until the completion of my study abroad program, I think the best kind of advice I could ever give to any future students going on a language exchange program in the face of culture shock is to be patient with yourself when coping with stressors, don’t compare your journey to other students’ in your program, be strong, and don’t give up.
Being patient with yourself means understanding you are human and with that comes limitations when facing frustrations. I had this idea in my head that coming here I would soak up the Spanish language like a sponge and that I would leave here completely fluent. It’s my seventh month into my program in Costa Rica and I still have days where I wake up and I feel like I can’t express everything I want to say correctly. This started a cycle of me being hyper-critical of myself and with that, the language barrier seemed to widen between me and the culture here because I would be so focused on wanting to prevent an error or sounding foolish when I speak that I would sometimes lose the ability to communicate clearly altogether! As a learner of Spanish as a second language, I have to accept that my ability to communicate is not comparable to native speakers—but that’s completely okay because I came here to grow with a new language! Learning a new language is a challenge in and of itself, and with that comes inevitable mistakes! I have a professor who speaks English fluently, and he has even admitted that despite having several years of experience in another language, he also makes errors!
Not comparing yourself to your peers means accepting that you’re on your own unique journey and that adjusting to a new culture is different for everyone. The classroom setting where you learn a new language is a culture in and of itself, and this is a time where it’s important to focus on personal growth in the language. For the first time in my life, I am taking a full course load in another language which is something I never anticipated I would be doing in my life. That being said, I have had some intense moments of feeling overwhelmed with information, especially in my advanced Spanish grammar course. Sometimes I would also catch myself comparing my struggle to students who seem to so easily grasp a complicated subject when I’m needing to ask the professor to repeat the same thing several times. I think comparing myself exacerbated my sense of feeling overwhelmed because then I would start second guessing my own knowledge which definitely does not help me learn. If you ever feel yourself making a comparison to others during your time abroad, it helps to take a step back to acknowledge that everyone comes from different walks of life and thus handles situations differently. In my case, there are native speakers in some of my courses, and naturally their transition into our courses may have been different than mine as someone who is acquiring Spanish as a second language—therefore there is absolutely no good reason to make such an unjust comparison!
Being strong and not giving up means finding your strength with a support group and realizing that you can accomplish your goals with a positive outlook. Though my culture shock has bestowed moments of frustrations, and intense moments of homesickness, learning to develop an attitude of gratitude has allowed me to finish my year off strongly. I am really fortunate to have been blessed with a loving support system–my host mom, a really incredible best friend in my program, and my parents in the States whom I can call during times of distress. My host mom has been supportive by checking in on me, and just spending quality time with her has helped me so much. We actually just finished reading Charlotte’s Web together in Spanish. I read it aloud to her each week for the past few months, and I must say, even in Spanish this book makes my eyes water!
One of my best friends in the program has also been really emotionally supportive by volunteering with me at the Reforestation Center at our host university. We’ve been helping bundle trees in small bags with soil so that the university can reforest areas around Costa Rica. The professors and students who work at the center have also been so friendly and kind to us with enthusiasm to teach us about the different species they have in the greenhouse and around UNA (Universidad Nactional de Costa Rica).
And lastly, my parents at home have also been supportive of me when I’ve felt overwhelmed. While it’s important to be conscious of spending too much time Skyping with family because it may intensify homesickness, I think it’s important to keep in contact with family who can offer insight on your personal strengths, which my parents definitely do. They’ve given me so much encouragement to finish my year abroad strongly—which is exactly what I’m doing!
Also, when facing culture shock another powerful tool is to always take time to acknowledge the little things that are special about the culture you’re living in–like Costa Rican iced coffee!
Studying abroad in Costa Rica has completely changed my life. As a Gilman scholar, I have been given the enriching opportunity to grow academically and professionally through new language skills and cultural integration. My time in Costa Rica has enhanced my ability to dream passionately and to keep striving toward my vision of becoming a bilingual health professional who can make a difference in the community.
The Gilman Scholarship has truly helped me believe in myself and helped me realize all things are possible. The challenges I’ve faced during my international educational experience have ranged from language frustrations to learning to cope with the stages of culture shock while being abroad. All of my experiences have helped me mature and have allowed me to develop as a more flexible and open individual who can take on all obstacles with integrity. With the new language skills I have acquired from my language intensive program with the University Studies Abroad Contortion, the Gilman Scholarship Program has opened the doors of opportunity for me to apply to the Peace Corps as a community health aid for South America. (I’ll know about my acceptance within the next month!) After my two years of service with the Peace Corps, I hope to continue my education with a pre-medicine program designed for career-changers in order to pursue my lifelong dream of studying medicine. The Gilman Scholarship Program supporting my dream has had an invaluable impact on my life as my Spanish speaking skills will help me serve my community, while also helping me grow.
The Gilman Scholarship Program has made me more passionate about recognizing full human potential in myself and in others. When I realized I wanted to study abroad my senior year to learn Spanish, I faced confusion from people who doubted that I could reach this lofty goal. With the support from Gilman, I’ve been able to thrive in completing my last goal as an undergraduate which was to be conversationally fluent in Spanish. I’m hoping to inspire more people from my community to study abroad with the Gilman Scholarship Program because it will open doors for them and help them build confidence. I think a common barrier students face when dreaming to study abroad is their misconception that they’re “not good enough” or “not smart enough.” As a student who has overcome these doubts, I can now serve as a stronger role model and bring more encouragement to others with similar goals which will help make a stronger community as a whole.
With three months remaining in my program (and in my entire undergraduate career), I have been driven to make the most of my educational opportunity and find ways that my skills can help me help others. I am pleased that my sentences are flowing, and my grammar skills are beginning to solidify. I’m finally able to serve as a translator, and to formulate fluid thoughts and opinions of my own. I can even explain to my local friends my goals for the future, and them understand me! I know the language skills I’ve developed in Costa Rica will serve me for life. The Gilman Scholarship Program has enhanced my confidence to believe in myself and my ability to become a bilingual health worker of the future.
Before studying abroad in Central America, I knew living in a machismo culture for the first time would be a challenge because of my strong feminist views. Machismo, an exaggerated sense of male pride to dominate females, reveals itself in everyday interactions here in Costa Rica. Feeling objectified so often here is one thing that continues to frustrate me most.
The casual sexism I’ve faced in Costa Rica has been a serious struggle for me at times. As a woman, I’ve constantly been put in positions where I feel uncomfortable because men think it’s a “compliment” to stare, blow kisses, and shout derogatory phrases at me in the street.
The moment which made me feel most upset was when I was having a conversation with a person here whom I considered to be a friend and he nonchalantly asked me my opinion on casual sex. It was particularly hurtful because it made me feel as if I was being ostensibly befriended for the sole purpose of being a sexual prospect, which my host mother and a local girl friend of mine here both explained to me is very common in this culture.
As a passionate feminist, I struggle with identifying the appropriate response to this casual sexism. As a person coming from another country, is it right to “look down” upon what has been traditionally the norm for this culture? Or does that make me ethnocentric? Here’s what I have come to conclude: It’s undignified to cause any person to feel uncomfortable or unsafe. Furthermore, treating other people like objects can be a step toward treating someone with violence, which is ultimately dangerous to a community. While I can understand that people in Costa Rica have been raised to think a certain way from childhood, I believe there is room for progress in treating all genders with dignity. Promoting change starts with understanding why culture in Costa Rica is permissive to treating women like objects.
Akin to culture in the United States, Costa Rica rears children with gender binary structures and terminology. Many words in Spanish can perpetuate shame and stereotypes associated with femininity. A prime example is the word esposa which directly translates to English as “wife,” but in Spanish is used to also refer to handcuffs. Furthermore, Spanish words can be used to undermine the power of femininity, such as consistently using the masculine noun to prevail in instances of referencing a group of people, whether they are of mixed gender or solely one. Niño prevails when referring to all children, though the feminine noun niñas is not considered socially acceptable to refer to all children, unless it is a specific group of children who all identify as girls. The same is true for the words chicos and chicas, and ticos and ticas. In fact, if referring to a group of mixed gendered people with the feminine form, some may take offense to it. The same is true in the United States, where people typically refer to a group of people as “guys,” but it would be considered undignified to refer to a group of men as “girls.” This is an example of how words can teach people to refer to women as of lesser value and thus perpetuate discrimination.
Furthermore, Costa Rica puts a lot of emphasis on the value of feminine beauty. I found it very interesting that my first few lessons in Spanish had so many gender binary descriptions. For instance, many of the basic phrases which addressed women commented on their appearance rather than intelligence or any other quality which suggests an accomplishment. Interestingly, I did not learn how to “compliment” a man on his beauty until a week after, when I was corrected after calling a man bonito.
To some, deconstructing casual sexism may seem trivial. However, the consequences of not addressing such a serious issue leads to everyday violence. Quite recently, The Tico Times reported about a man who was stabbed to death because he was attempting to raise awareness about the street harassment woman typically face in this culture. The murdered victim was filming another man who was looking up the skirts of women with a mirror on his shoe.
Costa Rica has taken progressive steps toward addressing serious gender issues. During a national soccer game, the scoreboard displayed the number of domestic violence calls the police received throughout the time of the game. Because soccer is to Costa Rica what American football is to the United States, thousands of people watched and considered the fact that sporting events are a prime time for domestic violence. Working three years with Crisis Intervention of Houston as a crisis hotline counselor, Super Bowl Sunday in the U.S. was cited as the day where the most domestic violence cases are consecutively reported. For that reason alone, it could be impactful if major sporting events in the U.S. could have something similarly displayed on the scoreboards. Costa Rica has also promoted laws which are meant to punish perpetrators of domestic violence. For instance, men who commit violence against their partners may not be allowed to keep a gun in the home or will be ordered to temporarily relocate while still providing financial support to his family. Additionally, the National Institute of Women in Costa Rica has established programs and shelter for gender-based violence. According to the Costa Rican Department of Police Intelligence, during the first three months of 2012 alone, law enforcement received an average of 222 reports of domestic violence per day. This amounted to a total of 19,975 domestic violence cases in all of 2012 – 5,195 more cases than were reported in the first few months of 2011.
Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica has been spreading awareness about sexual harassment and the harmfulness of machismo culture with posters and presentations all throughout campus. I took photos of some of the displays in hopes of bringing these ideas back to my home university.
Currently, a big debate in Costa Rica surrounds Banco de Costa Rica (Costa Rica Bank), and their new women-only bank called Banca Kristal. Banca Kristal‘s slogan in the newly released advertisement is ninguna mujer es complicada, which translates as “nothing about women is complicated.” This advertisement can be found all around San Jose and Heredia. Though the idea for the bank is to empower women by giving them financial access, particularly those who face economic challenges, there is much criticism of the bank from local feminists because some argue it perpetuates stereotypical roles of women. For instance, the bank is all pink inside and outside, and offers women special savings accounts for beauty products, and according to The Tico Times, also distributes free clutch handbags to its clients. The advertisements, which can be seen on billboards near my home and during advertisements at the local cinema, all feature young and conventionally beautiful women. If this bank is meant to empower women by providing tools for economic stability, why is there so much emphasis on selling an image of beauty? How will a glamour advertisement help a community full of women refugees from Nicaragua recognize this bank as source of help? We shall see what the future has in store for this bank and how it impacts the community.
Let’s hope this year brings more awareness about gender issues so that we can generate change!
Studying abroad changes you. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize these changes. I think before coming to Costa Rica, I had all of these ideas in my head about how much I would change, how much I expected to grow with the Spanish language, and learn to understand the culture. I was expecting it so much, that I didn’t really stop to consider all the little things, or people, that have made such a lasting impact on my experience in Costa Rica.
Number one: My host mom. Gosh, have I already written about how much I love her? She’s literally the most graceful and optimistic individual I’ve ever met. I’m seriously so thankful to have been placed with her. It overwhelms me how happy and safe she makes me feel and her sense of compassion for others. This past month has been overwhelming for me with stress and anxiety, and she has been by my side as a healer. She’s taken me to the beach, and made me hot chocolate at night while studying for my exams, and has just made me smile. I really admire her because she is so sweet and patient to everyone she encounters. I’d like to consider her not only a good representation of the faces of Costa Rica, but also of the embodiment of simple human kindness. I know I’m fortunate to have another five months with her, but I already know I will miss her so much when I head back to the States in May.
Number two: My Spanish professor. Gosh, I love him more than he’ll ever know. He’s actually a lawyer here in Costa Rica. He told our class of six at the beginning of the semester that after he suffered from a medical issue a few years ago, he wanted to do something good for his health and that’s why he joined the University Studies Abroad Consortium (USAC) family as a professor. I believe he’s one of the rare individuals who teach for the sole purpose of making a difference in people’s lives because it makes him happy. Knowing that makes me happy, too. Especially because he’s had such an impact on my life in so many ways. Because of him, I’m able to communicate in a second language. Because of him, I’ve had my first conversation in Spanish with my dad and now my dad and I only communicate in Spanish. My professor has also been a reminder of the importance of laughing—especially at ourselves. We were going around the room in class one day, and he asked me to translate “give me” to Spanish, and I responded (with such confidence, I might add) digame (which actually means “tell me”), and he laughed so hard he went silent for a good twenty seconds, and then suddenly the whole classroom was laughing. I laughed so hard I cried! He definitely has made learning so much fun, and I know all six of us will miss having him as a mentor and professor.
Number three: Appreciating Latin American culture, and feeling more connected with my family roots has had such an impact on my life. Growing up in Houston, especially within my family culture, there was always this sense of indignity that lingered with being half Mexican. I’ve experienced so much negativity growing up and hearing people degrade anyone on the other side of the border with vile names and prejudice. My time living in Heredia has really helped me to take pride in how beautiful the people, the food, the customs, and the dancing of Latin American culture is. It’s also made me so happy to be able to communicate in a language I should have been raised to know. I can’t express enough how happy talking to my dad in Spanish makes me, or how grateful I am that so many people in Costa Rica have made me feel so welcomed (thank you everyone in the chess family, especially Martin, for always making me laugh).
Number four: This country is truly so rich in beauty! Hiking throughout Barva has been such a life enriching experience. And seeing the beautiful beaches of Manuel Antonio and Flamingo have been incredible, especially experiencing this with my host mom. I look forward to experiencing more of the natural beauty Costa Rica has to offer.
The past four months have truly changed my life. I’ve learned so much about the world, and about people. I’ve treasured all of it. As I’ve concluded my first semester in Heredia, I can’t help but feel so excited for this one month break and for next semester to begin. This Christmas break, a friend and I are going to volunteer at a sea turtle conservation project from Christmas through New Year’s. I’m also thrilled for this upcoming semester! I’ll finally be able to start interning as a research assistant at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA), where I’ll be helping a professor study the hydrology processes to improve water conservation. And then there’s applying for graduation, and my last semester of undergraduate, ever! Ah, life goes so quickly!
Wishing everyone holidays filled with joy, family, and hot cocoa!