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"Amazing" Class in Costa Rica Leads to a New Academic Direction

Published: May 4, 2015

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For Grinnell College student Luis Hernandez, the fall 2013 ACM Costa Rica: Community Engagement in Public Health, Education, & the Environment program looked like a perfect fit.

With his interests in Latin American studies and environmental studies, the program covered all the right academic bases, with a biodiversity course as the main attraction.

Dr. Anfossi teaching

Dr. Anfossi teaching her course, The Impact of Education in Costa Rica.

Hernandez was right. The program was a perfect fit — just not in the way he had expected.

"When I got to Costa Rica, they presented all the [elective] classes and said 'Sit in on each class and see which one you want,'" he recalled. One of the electives was the biodiversity course he planned to take. Another was a course on education taught by Dr. Andrea Anfossi Gomez.

Anfossi's class "was amazing," said Hernandez. The subject captured his interest and spurred him to learn more. He signed up for the education class, and by the end of the semester had decided to change his academic direction and major.

"When I got back [to Grinnell]," he said, "I stopped taking chemistry and environmental studies courses and started focusing on sociology and education."

Andrea Anfossi and Luis Hernandez

Andrea Anfossi and Luis Hernandez during her visit to Grinnell College.

Cultural and language immersion, even with sports

In her course, The Impact of Education in Costa Rica, Anfossi talked about how education systems in Latin America have changed over time and from country to country. She drew comparisons between Costa Rica's educational system and its neighbors, and between urban and rural areas within Costa Rica, itself. The class also explored issues such as the roles of public and private educational institutions in Costa Rica and the U.S. and the levels of government funding for education in different countries.

One of the students' favorite aspects of the Costa Rica Program is the month-long community practicum, when they fan out across the country to live with host families and work with local organizations on projects related to the program's themes of public health, education, and the environment.

"We all got to choose where we wanted to go," said Hernandez. "I knew I really wanted to go where I could learn about different types of cultures, because that's what intrigues me the most. So they placed me in Boruca, which is an indigenous reservation in the south of Costa Rica."

Costa Rica Program group

Costa Rica Program group in fall 2013 visiting the Museo Nacional in San José.

His practicum placement matched his interest in education. As a teacher's assistant for special education classes at an elementary school, Hernandez learned a lot about how special education in Costa Rica differs from special education in the U.S. and about the varying perceptions of special education in the two countries.

Cultural and language immersion runs throughout the program, and the time spent living with a host family in a small town showed Hernandez both similarities and contrasts with his home stay experience in the capital city of San José, where the program is based. "Both families were very caring and compassionate," he said, "and they helped you out with whatever you needed."

Their styles of speaking Spanish, though, differed considerably. "In San José, it's slower, clearer, and they take the time to explain things," he said. "In the rural stay, the Spanish was a little more intense, it was faster, and they had the indigenous language as well, so it was kind of a mixture of both of them."

Luis Hernandez

Luis Hernandez clears the bar at a Grinnell College track and field meet.

At Grinnell, Hernandez is a pole vaulter and hurdler on the track team. Although the fall semester is mostly off-season for track, he didn’t want to completely drop his training regimen. Program staff helped him connect with two local coaches to train with, one a pole vaulter and the other a hurdler. Both were nationally-ranked for their events in Costa Rica.

Hernandez not only stayed in shape and learned some new vaulting techniques, but his language fluency also got a workout — at least when it came to sports-related vocabulary — since the coaching was all in Spanish.

A new major and bringing Anfossi to Grinnell

Returning to Grinnell for the spring 2014 semester, Hernandez was ready to chart a new path academically. "I really wanted to create my own major [with] classes that would work together to develop what I wanted to study," he said. With the help of two advisors, Spanish professor Yvette Aparicio and history professor Pablo Silva, he designed a Latin American Studies major focused on Latino identity and education.

During the fall of his senior year, Hernandez wanted to bring a speaker to campus who could give a presentation to the campus community about education and Latinos. He immediately thought of Anfossi.

Andrea Anfossi poster

A poster for Andrea Anfossi's presentation at Grinnell College.

With support from Spanish professor Valérie Benoist and sponsorship by the Latin American Studies department, he made arrangements for Anfossi to travel to Grinnell in December and give a presentation titled "The Education of Latin@s in the 21st Century: The Education System of Costa Rica."

The evening and day Anfossi spent on campus were packed with activity, meeting with groups of students and faculty and visiting Spanish classes to talk about education in Latin America, her work as the Executive Director of Habitat for Humanity in Costa Rica, and the ACM Costa Rica Program.

As graduation approaches, Hernandez is finishing up his senior thesis, an examination of education and personal agency titled "Un Macho Maricón: U.S. Gay Latino Men Navigating Gender and Sexuality."

"My focus is on personal growth and experiences," he noted. "Scholars were optimistic that gay Latino men achieved gender fluidity and sexual versatility, but the reality is that barriers remain for gay Latino males because they are not as educated on queer and gender theory."

Echoing of his experience in rural Costa Rica, Hernandez will be working in the classroom again through a year-long AmeriCorps position with Hands On Atlanta.

"I start my journey in August with Drew Charter Elementary School," he said, where he will assist teachers and tutor students in math and language arts. In addition, he will have opportunities to design fun, educational activities for children in a Saturday Discovery Program and help out with a Parent University program for Spanish speaking adults.


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