Students on first faculty-led summer study abroad program travel to Costa Rica

Costa Rica. Home to rich flora and fauna, beaches and tropical rain forests, and the host country for Mount Mercy University’s first faculty-led summer study abroad trip.

“Costa Rica is a wonderful country to start this study abroad program,” said Dr. Belkis Suarez, assistant professor of Spanish and faculty leader for the trip. “It is a beautiful country in Central America that has a very diverse environment, no army, a low rate of urban violence. Also, people in Costa Rica are accustomed to welcoming tourists from around the world.”

In June, seven students traveled south to spend four weeks exploring the Latin American country under the direction of Suarez. Students participating in the Costa Rican trip (Mikayla Morrison of South English, Iowa; Gina Behnke of Holy Cross, Iowa; Alexandria Pircer of Cedar Falls, Iowa; Sophie Blake of Clarence, Iowa; Bianca Curtis of Green Lake, Wis.; Daniel Wayson of North Liberty, Iowa; and Tyler Hartley of Muscatine, Iowa) earned six credits in Spanish conversation abroad and Advanced Spanish I, but they gained far more than credit hours toward their degrees.

As part of their time abroad, each student took classes at a local university and explored the city to help hone their language skills. “Studying another language requires learning about culture. Going abroad is one more stage in the language-acquisition process,” said Dr. Suarez. “The study abroad experience expands the students’ view of the world, of themselves and helps them to develop a different perspective to understand and relate to their local communities.”

“We divided our days between taking classes at la Universidad Latina in the mornings and exploring the city of Heredia and its surroundings as well as volunteering in the afternoons,” said Dr. Suarez.

During their stay in Costa Rica, students toured a coffee plantation, hiked through a volcanic park, and swam in the Pacific Ocean. They also embraced the Mercy mission while abroad and participated in a service project, helping create a garden to benefit a center for disabled people. While all these experiences left an impact on the students, living with Costa Rican host families provided some of the trip’s most memorable moments.

“My favorite experience would have to be meeting and living with my host family,” said Sophie Blake. “They really helped me with my Spanish, but also they literally became my family away from home. I still keep in contact with them and I miss them every day.”

Danny Wayson also commented that his host family made a huge impact on his time abroad, “Everyone in my host family was so amazing and to be accepted into such a loving family was an indescribable feeling. I couldn’t have asked for anything better.”

Living with native Costa Ricans allowed the students to truly immerse themselves in the culture – from practicing the language to learning to cook Costa Rican dishes.

“We came home to people, we were able to learn how to make some of the typical Costa Rican food, and they made us feel like part of the family immediately,” said Blake.

With the first summer faculty-led trip complete, Dr. Suarez is already planning for the next.

“Catharine Cashner (Director of International Programs and Student Services) and I are conversing with directors of different programs with the purpose of continuing the study abroad experience next summer,” said Suarez. “In addition to the possibility of returning to Costa Rica, we are exploring other alternatives such as Spain or Argentina.”

And, to those students who are thinking about participating in the next summer study abroad adventure, the students who went to Costa Rica offer this piece of advice – go.

“My advice for people who are thinking about studying abroad is to do it!” says Blake. “There is nothing you can do here in the US that can compare to a trip abroad. No matter where you go, but especially if you are learning a second language.”

Dr. Suarez would echo that sentiment, citing the growth she’s already seen in the students who participated this year, “I can attest that the students who went to Costa Rica view the world, and more importantly themselves, in a very different, richer way than they did before going.  This experience changed them and made them more aware of other people, other cultures and the world.”