Category Archives: Central America
“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!