My study abroad program was two weeks in Costa Rica studying the supply chain of the coffee industry. It was so much fun but also it was exhausting and came with lots of challenges. I only had some Spanish vocabulary background from high school, but basically no experience speaking the language. So it was very difficult to communicate. I was able to comprehend and follow the conversations we had with my host family at dinner, but I did not contribute much. Luckily my roommate was much better at speaking Spanish than I, and she could communicate about important things like when we would be coming and going and when we would be eating with them. She also translated important or interesting things from the conversations that I didn’t catch. It was definitely still a good experience because our host family was very nice and I know the mom talked slower intentionally to help us to follow better. It was also sometimes difficult to order at a restaurant or go shopping, but pointing and trying my best allowed me to get by. Our best experience interacting with the locals was when we did a language exchange with local students. They spoke English much more fluently than we spoke Spanish so we were able to communicate effectively and both get to practice speaking the other language. I learned that the Ticos were a lot like us and we could find plenty of things in common to talk about. My advice to others going to Costa Rica would be to practice your Spanish more before you go. You will get by either way, but it will be more fun and you will get to know the locals better if you can speak their language. I learned that Ticos are very kind, but not quite as outgoing as I expected. I guess I thought we would interact with them more, but most of the time the Ticos went about their daily lives and we stuck together as a group. We definitely stood out a lot and attracted many glances, but being American did not bring us bad treatment. Some people would be interested and ask us where we were from and what we were studying in Costa Rica. Being American made me feel a little self-conscious that we would be targeted for harassment or theft, but that never happened. The worst that would happen is we would be charged more or the Taxi drivers would take the long way to get us to our destination. Still, these things only happened a couple times, and we probably could have prevented it if we spoke better Spanish and could have defended ourselves.
The company visits were definitely some of my favorite parts of the trip. We got to see coffee plantations, mills, and roasteries. I was surprised how much we learned about growing coffee trees, harvesting, processing, drying, roasting, packaging, and marketing. We felt like we were the experts by the time we went to our last visit, but there was still always something new to learn. It was very interesting to compare and contrast the strategies of the various companies. There was also a big focus on sustainability at most of the places. My favorite visit was the Life Monteverde where we got to see the farm and the coffee plantation. I loved that we got to plant trees because it made us feel like we made a difference. I also loved how we got a view of the big picture and the whole coffee process. The people there loved what they did and believed in it. They loved the environment and wanted to teach us about it all. I was surprised how open they were about everything and let us interact. It wasn’t just a typical tourist tour. This enhanced my learning because I got to look at it from a new perspective, and it didn’t feel like they were just putting on a show.
The most surprising part about studying abroad was how comfortable it felt. I thought it would be much more intimidating but I was surprised how quickly I adjusted and felt familiar with our routine. It was very tiring because we had a very packed schedule, but it was all fun and was definitely worth it. The only thing I wish I knew ahead of time was to practice my Spanish more. My advice to future Costa Rica Plus3 students is to love coffee (you will drink a lot of it) and learn Spanish (you will speak a lot of it). Also, be open to all the opportunities available and have fun. It is an amazing experience and you want to enjoy every second. Traveling to a foreign country was a personal dream of mine, and now that I have done it, I know that I want to explore even more parts of the world (and probably also return to Costa Rica). It was also an academic goal of mine to study abroad. So now I have completed that, and I am considering doing it again somewhere else. This experience has also reassured me about my career goal to become a chemical engineer. Getting to see the coffee process and studying the supply chain will help me one day to make important decisions by considering sustainability and looking at the big picture. I am so grateful I got to explore the beautiful country of Costa Rica. The major differences between where I traveled and home was the climate, food, and language. It was awesome to experience something different from where I have lived my whole life (Pittsburgh) and have an amazing temporary home.