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Seeking Out Opportunities, Thriving in a New Place, and Learning Slang from Kids

Published: May 31, 2013

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When students arrive in the bustling capital city of San José, Costa Rica, for ACM's fall semester program, they settle in with their host families, study Spanish every day, and go on field trips to enjoy other parts of the diverse, beautiful country.

After about a month, though, it's time for something completely different, and they scatter out across Costa Rica to live in small towns and villages with host families and engage in volunteer work.

Adam Johnson

Adam Johnson with his host father in Tárcoles, Costa Rica.

On their return, students have said the rural stay was an experience that took them out of their comfort zones and challenged them to take initiative, rely on their ability to speak Spanish, and find their own way in a new place without their familiar classmates from the program.

As St. Olaf student Adam Johnson put it, living in Tárcoles on the Pacific coast during the fall 2012 program was a time "I'll never forget for the rest of my life."

This fall, the rural stay will be expanded from three to four weeks and reshaped as a practicum, with more connections to the program's academic curriculum. Students will still live with families and continue their community engagement with local organizations and schools, so the cultural immersion that Johnson found to be so memorable will be even longer.

"They didn't speak any English, so I was living with the family and all communication was done in Spanish," said Johnson. "It was an amazing experience. No one has any cars, you're just walking around and I got to stop and talk to people in the village."

Johnson's host father was a fisherman, like most of the men in town, who sold his catch to the local fish cooperative. For his volunteer work, Johnson was at the community center, painting the building and helping to keep the nearby parks clean. On some days, he'd go down to the co-op and sort fish coming off the boats, carrying the big buckets filled with ice and fish.

Meghan Keenan

Meghan Keenan at the chocolate cooperative.

One of Johnson's classmates, Meghan Keenan from Lawrence University, spent the rural stay in northeastern Costa Rica, in the town of Pueblo Nuevo, where she taught English to women in the Amazilia chocolate cooperative.

"I would teach from one to eight women, depending on who could show up that morning," Keenan recalled. "The women didn’t know any English when I arrived, so I taught them what I thought would be most helpful for their chocolate business." Mostly, that was basic conversational phrases and vocabulary related to the kitchen and cooking.

Read more about the new elective courses and longer rural experience in the Costa Rica Program this fall!

From time to time, the women skipped their English lesson to ramp up production of chocolate bars to sell at an upcoming fair, and Keenan would lend a hand making and wrapping the confections. "I enjoyed being able to teach them and at the same time have them teach me some Spanish and things about their business," she said.

Teaching English was the main "job" for St. Olaf College student Matthew Terhaar, as well, though it was elementary and high school students he taught in the mountain town of Llano Bonito. Many of the teachers didn't give specific directions about what to teach, Terhaar said, so he took initiative and planned his own lessons.

Matthew Terhaar

Matthew Terhaar preparing a lesson.

"I designed games for them that would kind of force them to practice the concepts that they were learning, through speaking or writing exercises or conversation exercises," he said. "It was really great working with the kids."

Terhaar approached his volunteer experience as "more seeking out opportunities rather than fulfilling assignments," so when he wasn't teaching, he found other places nearby to pitch in. One day a week he worked at a coffee cooperative, helping them translate their promotional materials and website into English for a growing clientele in the U.S. and Europe. On other days, he helped his host mother at a cooperative that made shampoos and soaps out of medicinal plants and ran a holistic health center. On occasion, he also spent time with a youth group that met at a church in town.

Matthew Terhaar

Matthew Terhaar with his host mother in Llano Bonito.

Volunteering in the schools during the rural stay gave Terhaar a taste of teaching, and he enjoyed it. "I know what I want to do after graduation is to teach English abroad somewhere," he said. "So I would say that my Costa Rica experience has definitely affected my future."

All three students spent most of their free time with their host families. Johnson lived with an extended family that filled two houses, right next door to each other. There was constant activity, particularly with his two host brothers, who were 11 and 13 years old.

"They had a great time showing me around," Johnson said, and always wanted to talk to him and ask questions about his life in the U.S. "I probably improved my Spanish the most, talking to them. [Kids] don't hold anything back, they let you know if you're screwing something up. They'll joke with you, too. They use all the slang words and you learn a lot from them."

Meghan Keenan

Meghan Keenan in Pueblo Nuevo with members of her host family.

Being in Llano Bonito, Terhaar said, made it impossible for him to fall back into speaking English. "It was really great, because the people I was hanging out with on a Friday night weren't my friends from the United States," he noted. "They were the new friends I had made in Costa Rica."

Keenan said that she realized through the experience that she could thrive on her own in a completely new environment. "I faced a lot of small daily challenges in Costa Rica," she said, "and looking back I am proud of how I overcame them."

The program's change this fall to a longer rural practicum experience has already gotten a ringing endorsement from Terhaar. "If I could, I would have spent the rest of the semester [in Llano Bonito]," he said, "because I absolutely loved it."


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