Category Archives: Central America

Feeling Off Balance

“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.

 

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I stayed on the rooftop of a slightly unsafe hostel. The view of the mountains in the background was amazing though.

Landing In Leh, India

It is an indescribable feeling seeing the highest mountain peaks in the world AND knowing your plane is going to be landing in between them…

 

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 🙂

 

Yummy Costa Rican Fish

Yummy Costa Rican fish. The eye is the best part 😉

Interviewing Gerardo Acosta (Manos Abiertas [NGO] founder) for my Honors Thesis

Gerardo is the founder of a non-profit called Manos Abiertas (Open Hands), which provides food, education, and health services to individuals living in high poverty neighborhoods. We traveled two hours to meet with him and spent 45 minutes talking about the incredible work he is doing. He will be part of my “Humans of Guanacaste” honors thesis exhibition, where I hope to raise money for organizations like his.

My Awesome Host Family X2

My awesome host family: Roy (host dad) and Samuel (he is a year old).

My Awesome Host Family

My awesome host family: Noily (host mom) and Camila (who I promise was smiling two seconds earlier). They have welcomed me with open arms and are pretty much like a second family to me now.

 

With Love,

Juan

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The Challenges of Studying Abroad

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A Day in the Life of Juan in Costa Rica

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Meet Gilman Scholar Juan Barco

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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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