The Costa Rica program is an alternative break program and academic experience sponsored by Student Housing and the Division of Student Affairs, in partnership with the Division of Undergraduate Education. The program allows sixteen UCI students to experience a global sustainability and cultural immersion program leading to an increased cultural competence and global leadership development. The participants serve as diplomatic ambassadors for UCI as they immerse themselves in the community and culture of Costa Rica.
Before the Trip
The program includes a 2 academic unit, quarter-long winter course, which meets weekly for 1.5 hours each week. The winter class lays the groundwork for the immersion trip and covers topics including: Costa Rican culture, cultural competency skills, personal identity, trip logistics, expectations, academic study topic preparation, and team building. Students also participate in a field trip to the UCI Arboretum where they experience local nature and wildlife in Irvine, creating a basis for comparison once in-country. In early January, students will be taken on an overnight retreat, within Orange County, designed to continue preparation for the Costa Rica experience. Students then travel to Costa Rica during Spring Break.
The Rural Farm Village of Mastatal
The Costa Rica in-country portion begins with a visit to the rural farm village of Mastatal and stay at Siempre Verde, an environmental learning center specializing in organic farming and sustainable development. This farm allows students to experience open-air living, farm-to-table organic meals, composting toilets, outdoor showers, and rural daily life. Students also have the opportunity to visit two other environmental learning centers, Rancho Mastatal and Villas Mastatal, which specialize in sustainable building, research and living. While guided by local experts in Mastatal students explore concepts related to the nature and culture of Costa Rica, including rural community structure, tropical ecology, medicinal plant use, Costa Rican education, sustainable chocolate farming, reforestation, ecotourism, sustainable development & building, indigenous issues, and composting. They meet with local indigenous community members to learn about medicinal plant uses and participate in the making of chocolate at a cocoa farm.
Staying with Costa Rican Families
They also have the privilege of staying overnight in the home of local families in the small town of Mastatal and become part of the small rural Costa Rican community in which they are guests. Students are placed in their homestay families in pairs based on their level of Spanish, study topic, and family dynamics. The homestay families are handpicked by the coordinating organization, Tropical Adventures in Education, and final placement is done in conjunction with the UCI Program Director and the Local Guide. The homestay experience is an invaluable part of the program, allowing students to step further outside their comfort zone while trying out their Spanish language skills and engaging in Costa Rican family life.
While in Mastatal, students also participate in service projects for the community. During the 2012 and 2013 program years, participants worked on a greenhouse at a local primary school. The greenhouse is used as both a teaching tool in the community and a place to grow food. The greenhouse was constructed by the 2012 program students, who used sustainable material (bamboo grown in the forest) to build the structure. The 2013 program participants continued work on the greenhouse by preparing the soil for planting, selecting rich soil from the forest and dried animal compost to mix in with the greenhouse soil to help plants grow. The 2014-2016 participants also helped with 5 other projects at Siempre Verde, which included working with a local primary school and community center. For this day of service, students helped build a table, lay cement for a floor foundation, secure beams for one of the cabanas, planned and planted a garden and learned Costa Rican cooking. They were able to choose projects that were related to their research or personal interests. All of these activities allowed the community to create usable spaces for gathering, save money for alternate projects, and move key initiatives forward quickly (like the greenhouse).
Experiencing the Coast
After spending time in the mountains, participants travel to the coast to spend several days at Hacienda Baru to experience lowland rain forest, beach, and mangrove ecosystems. They tour the mangrove system with local guides using small boats on the intercoastal waterway, learn about the restoration process of the mangroves, and study local wildlife of the coastal region. There is also a guided tour of Hacienda Baru, where students will have the opportunity to see indigenous wildlife including monkeys, sloths, and birds.
In addition to experiencing sustainability and Costa Rican culture, the program learning outcomes revolve primarily around the active learning that occurs by immersing participants in the culture and nature of Costa Rica. The program format allows each student to design a research project that uniquely served as a vehicle to achieving his/her own objectives. During the winter course, students identify several program goals, including exploration of a relevant research topic of particular interest, which they intend to achieve. Before and after arrival there are assigned readings, discussions on Costa Rican culture and nature, as well as lectures by local guides, naturalists, educators, and community members once in Costa Rica. To complete the program, each student creates a project/presentation to share with the UCI community, during the spring quarter, encompassing their experience.
After the Trip
During Spring Quarter, program participants work on one of three committees: Social Media, Costa Rican Theme Night, or the Research Symposium. Each of the students takes leadership roles within their committee and assists with the other programs/projects. The goal of these programs/projects is to share the knowledge and insights gained by participating in the Costa Rica Program with program stakeholders and the UCI community. In the past, each of these programs/projects was successful and allowed the participants to begin sharing their experiences and research.
Sharing THE Costa Rican Experience
Throughout the spring quarter, participants host outreach events to share the knowledge they gained while in Costa Rica. Past outreach events have included a Costa Rican Theme Night dinner in both first-year residential dining halls where students worked with the chefs to create a custom menu that replicates many of the dishes served on the organic farm in Mastatal. There was also a sustainability fair and succulents booth where students could take home a drought persistent plants. At each outreach event, students were able to speak with program participants about their experience, see some of the research projects, and participate in composting.
Also hosted spring quarter, the Symposium brings key stakeholders and community members together to hear about program outcomes and meet individually with the participants as they showcase their research projects. This has been a highly successful event and allows program supporters to hear about the impact of their support and the knowledge the participants gained. The program website also serves as a communication tool by hosting over several blog posts about the students’ experiences and allows readers to gain better insight into the sustainable practices and cultural experiences in Costa Rica.
Paying it Forward
Once the formal program ends, many of the students carry forward the work they begin in Costa Rica through their academic studies, new social initiatives, and UCI projects they plan. In addition, the perspective these students gain creates a paradigm shift for them and will forever impact their global perspective, value system, and personal identity.