Category Archives: Central America

Transitioning Back Home in the United States

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.

 

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I really miss my chess family. It was emotionally challenging saying bye to people who’ve been my friends since day one. Chess will never be the same without these enthusiastic learners, but I’m certainly thankful life brought us all together through a common passion.

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Before sending me off, they all signed my chess set with wishes for the future. I’ll always think of these faces when I’m thinking about my time as a student at my host university, Universidad Nacional. They taught me so much about the Spanish language and culture. Their friendship was truly such a gift.

 

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.

 

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My 23rd birthday was one of the best birthdays I’ve ever had. Mayela baked me a cake and had a small gathering at the house. She made a huge lasagna, and salad and put on a CD of different Spanish birthday songs. Both of us had two of our close friends over and all of us had such a great time singing and laughing.

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I think this photo is a great portrayal of the sense of warmth and love that filled my relationship with my host mom. She was the best part of my experience abroad and the person whom I turned to for advice with Spanish and life in Costa Rica. It was so touching that she put so much effort into making me feel so happy and special on my birthday. What’s more, she always made me feel like her daughter and for that, she will always be my second mom. I already miss her so much.

 

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.

 

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Having finished my degree in Costa Rica, I officially graduated the University of Houston on May 12th! I definitely had an incredible senior year thanks to Gilman and am so excited to finally say “I did it!”

 

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,

Alexandria Rodriguez

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Finding Inner Strength to Combat Culture Shock

Hola!

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!

 

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On weekends, I have been able to assist a fellow student, Liz, with English. This past month we worked on a project where she needed opinions from native English speakers about learning a second language. She is as enthusiastic about learning and speaking English as she is helping me out with my Spanish..

 

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!

 

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My all time favorite book that my host mom and I read together.

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This is Sharky, the family pooch taking his weekly bath with my host mom. She is the only one who can bathe him because he only trusts her. He is so cute! My host mom completely lights up when she gets to groom him.

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One day I came home from school and my host mom randomly asked if I wanted to go pick mangoes off the neighborhood tree. It was one of the richest moments I got to spend with Maryela. It took us probably a good twenty minutes to come up with a plan to get the mangoes down! She is so crafty because she found a large stick to knock them down with!

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These are the mangoes we collected–we also picked some lemons too! When we came home she chopped the mangoes up and put a spicy sauce on them and we ate them together. They were so good!

 

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).

 

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This is me and my really good friend Nikki. After class her and I volunteered together in the campus reforestation center. This was us putting arbolitos in fresh soil for future reforestation.

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The weather was perfect that morning! I had a great time learning about the different species of trees located around the university!

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One of my close friends Kristin and I on went on a chocolate tour together! We got to learn so much about how chocolate is processed, made, and distributed for economic growth. Plus we got to drink and eat chocolate!

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I took a trip with two of my friends to Arenal and we swam in the caterata which translates as “waterfall.” It was so beautiful, especially when the rain came!

 

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!

 

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My favorite treat while studying will always be cold coffee in Costa Rica.

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Another “little thing” I love to stop and admire is the sloths that casually hang around in the trees. Apparently they sleep 21 hours a day.

 

Hasta Mayo,

Alexandria

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Study Abroad Leads to Inspiration

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.

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That’s me in front of Universidad Nacional on the first day of my last semester of undergraduate. I’m so thankful to the Gilman Scholarship Program for supporting my study abroad experience in Costa Rica. It’s been such a dream come true, and I can’t think of any other way I would rather complete my Bachelor’s degree. Estoy muy feliz y agradecida que se puede aprender sobre la cultura costarricense como estudiante de intercambio de la Universidad Nacional. Ahh, ya ha aperandi mucho. Here’s to dreaming passionately, curiously, and being a change-maker of the future. Thanks Gilman!

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.

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Understanding Casual Sexism in Costa Rica, Raising Awareness About Domestic Violence, and the Controversy Over Banca Kristal

Beunas,

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.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

 

Another poster displayed around campus to remind students unwanted physical contact is a form of sexual violence.

Another poster displayed around campus to remind students unwanted physical contact is a form of sexual violence.

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.

One of my feminist friends holding up a picture which displays common sexist attitudes. It translates as "That new haircut makes you look more old."

One of my feminist friends holding up a picture which displays common sexist attitudes. It translates as “That new haircut makes you look more old.”

 

This is spray painted on a wall in Heredia Central. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica. In 2007, it was reported that abortions preformed secretly rose from 22.3 for every 1,000 from 10.6 for every 1,000 women. Annually, this calculates to an estimation of 27,000  abortions being performed illegally in Costa Rica annually.

This is spray painted on a wall in Heredia Central. Abortion is illegal in Costa Rica. In 2007, it was reported that abortions secretly rose to 22.3 for every 1,000 women from 10.6 for every 1,000 women. Annually, this calculates to an estimation of 27,000 abortions being performed illegally in Costa Rica annually.

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.

During a nationally aired soccer game, Costa Rica displayed a third score to tally the numbers of police reported domestic violence cases. Throughout this game, this number rose to 25.

During a nationally aired soccer game, Costa Rica displayed a third score to tally the numbers of police reported domestic violence cases. Throughout this game, this number rose to 25.

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.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

Posters displayed around campus to remind students of what sexual harassment is.

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.

The giant billboard in front of my neighborhood which translates as "Nothing about Women is complicated." This is an advertisement for Banca Kristal. Does this ad challenge or perpetuate sexism?

The giant billboard in front of my neighborhood which translates as “Nothing about women is complicated.” This is an advertisement for Banca Kristal. Does this ad challenge or perpetuate sexism?

Let’s hope this year brings more awareness about gender issues so that we can generate change!

Sincerely,

Alexandria

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Reflecting on the Impact of Central America

Hola!

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.

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A photo of San Jose at night. I took this from the balcony of a building in central Heredia.

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Hiking throughout Barva in northern Heredia was how I celebrated the end of an incredible semester. Ah, I loved it so much.

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.

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Mayela, my host mom and I in Guanacaste. Ah, I love her so much!

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Mayela and I at Playa Flamingo right after sunset!

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.

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Arturo, my Spanish professor for Track I (“Baby Spanish”) and the whole class. All of us called ourselves his princesses! We will miss him so much!

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).

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Martin, my chess club director who has made me feel so welcomed here throughout the semester. He always puts a smile on my face.

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.

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Playa Manuel Antonio. Everyone kept recommending I take a weekend trip there and I’m so glad I did. This beach is absolutely beautiful!

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Another of Barva. Doesn’t this look like a place fairies and elves would live?

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A butterfly landed on my friend’s shoe. We were completely focused and awe inspired for a good few minutes, and then the butterfly started to crawl on her leg and both of us began screaming. It was funny! Poor butterfly had a broken wing, so we put it on a leaf away from the car path and continued on our way.

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A grazing cow in Barva.

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!

Pura Vida,

Alexandria

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That’s me in the UNA Chess Club uniform! I know how to teach people how to play chess in Spanish (pieces, moves, annotations and all).

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Being happy in Costa Rica!

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Time is Moving Too Fast for Me!

Hola Otra Vez!

I can’t believe I’m soon to begin my third month studying abroad in Costa Rica! El tiempo movido muy rapido! Does anyone else feel the sadness that ensues from time slipping so fast?

Every time I speak and write in Spanish and I know it’s grammatically incorrect, I always think of the memoir I read back in high school called Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. While I’m sure my Spanish is still pretty goofy-sounding, I have definitely built stronger confidence in speaking and writing and can only imagine that I’ll talk bonita one day too. The month of October has been a compilation of hours of studying el preterite y el subjuntivo, my first purely Spanish conversation with my father, and a trip to Monteverde. And in-between these moments, seeing a beautiful movie called The Motorcycle Diaries, and appreciating the Cuban Revolution.

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve

That's me in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve! It started to really shower right as I took this.

That’s me in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve! It started to really shower right as I took this.

My friend from the USAC program, Marley! She's a Gilman Scholarship recipient too! We were huddling for warmth in this picture.

My friend from the USAC program, Marley! She’s a Gilman Scholarship recipient too! We were huddling for warmth in this picture.

A view from our hotel in Monteverde. It is so lush and colorful there. Truly incredible.

A view from our hotel in Monteverde. It is so lush and colorful there. Truly incredible.

The University Studies Abroad Consortium program (USAC) in Heredia is Spanish intensive. We move from Beginning Spanish Level 1 through Intermediate Spanish Level 2 within one semester. This means I will have four separate grades per course, and naturally we have un examen casi siempre every two weeks. The first test I had at the beginning of October was muy fao. In fact, when our professor distributed the exams, he told us most of us had performed under par. In all honesty, I did have a moment of self-pity and frustration with myself for having performed so poorly. Though sometimes failure is the best way to find self-determination. During a conversation with my father on the phone, he told me to have more faith in myself and to study harder. And after my moment of self-pity had past, I was struck with determination to get an A on my next exam. Since then, I have spent hours-  I kid you not,  HOURS- on the floor in my host family’s sala with the light of a flameless candle and hot tea (gracias, mama tica), committing to memory all those wacky irregular verbs, and the patterns the CAR, GAR and ZAR verbs take on in the past (for example: yo buscar, yo busque).  I’ve gone through stacks (yes, STACKS) of flashcards. I’ve made three trips to El Rey, also known as el supermarcado muy barato, for more flashcards because I have been running out constantly.  Anyway, with the next exam, I did indeed pull an A!!! All of those hours studying and “si, se puede” moments literally saved my final grade in the course which turned out to be an A-. (The next course will be an A!!!)

This is what learning Spanish as a second language really looks like!

This is what learning Spanish as a second language really looks like!

Studying abroad in Heredia to gain Spanish as a second language has also made me feel closer with my Latin American family. I had my first conversation with my father in Spanish for almost twenty minutes via telephone. We spoke solely in Spanish, and it was moving hearing my father tell me “Este bien;” “This is good.” I hear everyone in Costa Rica say those words like they’re nothing, but when I heard my dad say them, I felt we connected on a closer level. I love my dad so much, and never would have imagined that one day I would be speaking with him in his native language. Even out of my four other sisters, two have completed years of Spanish in the classroom, but my dad said I was the only one he’s ever had a conversation with. Que fantastico, verdad? Es fue una momento muy bonito.

My classmate Mary was sweet enough to give me my very own chess set. It was very unexpected. This is my first chess set, and I'm so in love!

My classmate Mary was sweet enough to give me my very own chess set. It was very unexpected. This is my first chess set, and I’m so in love!

Before deciding to study abroad in Costa Rica, it was somewhat of a struggle for my mother to grasp my reasoning since I had previously studied abroad, and because this was to be my last year of undergrad. She felt that my time would have perhaps been better spent at my home university because it would be less expensive (which in reality, would not have been the case thanks to the Gilman Scholarship). My mom is from Germany by the way, and she speaks German and English fluently. My dad is Mexican, and he speaks Spanish and English fluently. Me? I have had five years of German courses throughout my high school education, including a semester of college German classes. Though I have fulfilled my dream of communicating with my mom’s side of the family with my butchered Deutch, I still have yet to call myself fluent in a second language.  Which is why, as my father and I ended our phone call, I requested him to communicate to my mom that I felt I made the best decision to study abroad in Costa Rica, and my father agreed.

I was lucky enough to get a picture with the son and wife of Alberto Granado. His son, who shares the same name, Alberto Granado, is to my left, and his wife, Delia Maria, is on my right! They accompanied us to Monteverde!

I was lucky enough to get a picture with the son and wife of Alberto Granado. His son, who shares the same name, is to my left, and his wife, Delia Maria, is on my right! They accompanied us to Monteverde!

What has truly been an incredible moment presented through my program with USAC, was meeting the Alberto Granado II, the son of Alberto I, who rode on a motorcycle journey throughout South America with Che Gueverra when Che was 23. USAC presented us with the film The Motorcyle Diaries, which is based on Che’s journal he kept throughout his journey in South America, before he would go on to become a revolutionary leader. It was neat thinking that at 22, I am close in age to how old Che was when he went on his journey. Before the movie, Alberto gave a speech about how accurate the film was to the journal, and it was such an honor to meet him and celebrate his mother’s 80th birthday during our program trip to Monteverde. As my Spanish professor noted to those of us who went to see the movie: “This is a moment you’ll remember for the rest of your lives.” During my semester abroad, I have become absolutely fascinated by the Cuban Revolution. For my Politics of Latin America course, I was given an assignment to present about the international relations between the United States and Cuba. And since, my curiosity about Cuban-American relations has flourished.

The USAC family celebrated Delia Maria's 80th birthday. After she blew out her candles, she began to get teary-eyed and then so did everyone else at our table!

The USAC family celebrated Delia Maria’s 80th birthday. After she blew out her candles, she began to get teary-eyed and then so did everyone else at our table!

On a side note, it turns out my Political Science professor is a professional chess player and played throughout graduate school competitively, which had me pretty excited.  He told me he’s a huge Bobby Fischer fan, and I finally got around to watching The Game of the Century. My professor was also kind enough to lend me Bobby Fischer Goes to War, which I am excited to start reading.

Wishing everyone a beautiful beginning to the start of November.

Yours,

Alexandria

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New Host Family, First Chess Tournament, and Possibly Peace Corps Bound!

After my host family change in early September, I’m happy to share I have been living with an incredible host family! I currently live with a host mom and a host sister. Both of them are so warm and welcoming. Both of them have an incredible sense of humor and I feel very cared about here. I instantly made a connection with my host sister, who is 18 and studies Medicine. We like to joke around the same way I joke around with my sisters back at home. My host mom has also helped me navigate through finding the bus station from Heredia to San Jose, and even walked me to school my first day! Since my arrival to this new host home two weeks ago, I have been so grateful for how comforted I have been since living here.

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My goofy host sister, Jenny and I!

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My sweet host mother, Maria and I!

Gallo Pinto (a very traditional dish of Costa Rica and Nicaragua) and plantains (also very commonly eaten in Costa Rica).

Gallo Pinto (a very traditional dish of Costa Rica and Nicaragua) and plantains (also very commonly eaten in Costa Rica).

My host mom is so sweet. Recently, I had to go see a doctor for an issue I’ve been having. The doctor prescribed me medication to take once every night, and my host mom always prepares it for me and checks on me. It has made me feel so at home, and since my last entry, I’m pleased to say that my “mal de patria” has immensely diminished.

The weekend of September 10th, I attended a national university competition known as JUNCOS, where universities around Costa Rica compete in various sports, including chess!

How awesome it was to have experienced my first chess tournament in Costa Rica!

I was so proud of all my fellow group members who competed! A fun fact: Costa Rica only has one current grandmaster (the highest title a chess player can attain). A group member from my host university, Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica (UNA) actually competed against him and they had a draw (for those of you who don’t know, that’s a pretty huge deal!). I can officially say I know someone who has played against a grandmaster and who is also among the top players of an entire country!

JUNCOS Chess Tournament 2015! My first time going to a chess tournament! It was so interesting watching university students from around Costa Rica compete!

JUNCOS Chess Tournament 2015! My first time going to a chess tournament! It was so interesting watching university students from around Costa Rica compete!

Carolina forfeited during her game, but she played with such viciousness! We were all so proud of her!

Carolina forfeited during her game, but she played with such viciousness! We were all so proud of her!

On my way to the Chess tournament, I stopped Parque Espana (San Jose). It's my favorite park in San Jose because of how peaceful it is.

On my way to the Chess tournament, I stopped Parque Espana (San Jose). It’s my favorite park in San Jose because of how peaceful it is.

A member from the club, Roberto, also invited me to his home for a small gathering and chess. It was the first time in Heredia I felt like I had a group of tico friends. While I played a game with a girl from our group, the guys were singing Spanish songs. It was truly a beautiful night spent with good people, and the best game in the world. And as of two weeks ago, I finally won my first game of chess playing against my group members.

One of the best evenings I've had in Heredia--passing the time with music and chess!

One of the best evenings I’ve had in Heredia–passing the time with music and chess!

I have also become closer with a fellow group member named Ariel. Ariel studies Business Administration at two universities, including UNA and another one. Ariel is also studying English, which is remotely comparable to my level of Spanish. He has been so helpful and patient with helping me review grammar in Spanish, especially concepts I have been having trouble with. This past day, he helped me review ser and estar (very basic verbs, I know, but I still have some confusion about when to use es or esta for usted/el/ella)! My other amigo tico, Alejandro, joked with me saying he has never met a gringo who can speak real Spanish. When Ariel was reviewing es and esta with me, he jokingly referenced Alejandro’s judgment as I incorrectly blurted out:

“El es feliz.” (A poorly conjugated way of saying “He is happy.”)

“No!,” Ariel exclaimed. “Gringos say ‘el es feliz’–but you know better!” We both laughed.

And as for mi amigo, Alejandro, he will see how beautifully I speak Spanish come May! I am determined to prove him wrong!

Mi amigo tico, Ariel! I treated him to ice cream after he helped me with my Spanish grammar!

Mi amigo tico, Ariel! I treated him to ice cream after he helped me with my Spanish grammar!

My Spanish professor's family invited the entire class over for breakfast and class lessons in his backyard!

My Spanish professor’s family invited the entire class over for breakfast and class lessons in his backyard!

My Spanish professor's family invited the entire class over for breakfast and class lessons in his backyard!

My entire Spanish class! (We love you Professor Atturo!!)

Something I have also grown to love about Latin culture is the passion for dancing! I decided to take a dance course as part of my study abroad program. I enrolled not having much faith my two left feet would get me very far, but our dance instructor took us to a dancing venue outside our classroom as part of her evaluation of what we have learned. I was so impressed with myself and had such a blast dancing salsa, merengue, and bachata! My moves are basic, but it really is all in the hips! I also love that all my tico friends either love dancing too or at least know the basic moves because when we play chess, we will usually put music on and I love dancing bachata in-between games!

As of October 2nd, I officially applied to the Peace Corps to volunteer in Peru and Guatemala. I would just like to say that as a requirement to apply to these programs, previous college-level Spanish instruction is a requirement. So I owe a sincere thanks to Gilman for opening this window of opportunity for me, because without studying abroad in Costa Rica, this would not have been a futuristic opportunity. As of last week of August, I have been using my time for all my postgraduate applications. Being a senior in university is stressful, but finishing applications does offer some peace of mind. To any other seniors studying abroad right now, here’s to the possibilities which await us upon our return to the U.S.!

On a closing note, Costa Rica does not celebrate Halloween! So as of late, I have been contemplating how I am going to spend my favorite day of the year! I was originally planning to spend it with American Horror Story and chocolate in bed, but as of late, I have been on the lookout for children’s books in Spanish with a spooky theme. I have not had any luck but maybe I will find a translated version of Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark online!

Wishing everyone a beautiful October, wherever in the world you are!

Yours,

Alexandria

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