2014 Costa Rica Program

During spring break 2014, 18 dedicated UCI students traveled to Costa Rica for a week of global sustainability and cultural immersion. Join program participants this spring as they share their experiences, research, and insights during several outreach events. Hear about sustainable living on an organic farm, chili peppers, spiders, home-stay visits, successful sustainable practices in Costa Rica, and more.

The program included a quarter-long winter course meeting weekly for 1.5 hours each week for 2-4 units of academic credit. 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 participated in a field trip to the UCI Arboretum where they experienced local nature and wildlife in Irvine creating a basis for comparison once in-country.

The Costa Rica in-country portion began 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 had 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 explored 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 met with local indigenous community members to learn about medicinal plant uses and participated in the making of chocolate at a cocoa farm.

They also had 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 participated in service projects for the community. This year students had the opportunity to continue work on a greenhouse at the local primary school which will be used as both a teaching tool and to grow their own food. The greenhouse was constructed using sustainable material (bamboo grown in the forest) by last year’s program students using raw materials. This year, the students prepared the soil for planting by selecting rich soil from the forest and dried animal compost to mix in the greenhouse soil to help plants grow. In addition, participants helped with 5 different projects at Siempre Verde. 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. Students 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).

After spending time in the mountains, participants traveled to the coast to spend several days at Hacienda Baru to experience lowland rain forest, beach, and mangrove ecosystems. Participants toured the mangrove system with local guides using small boats on the intercoastal waterway and learned about the restoration process of the mangroves and study local wildlife of the coastal region. There is also a guided tour of the preserve, Hacienda Baru, where students had 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 identified several program goals, including exploration of a relevant research topic of particular interest, which they intended 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 created a project/presentation to share with the UCI community, during the spring quarter, encompassing their experience.

During Spring Quarter, program participants worked on one of four committees: Social Media, Costa Rican Theme Night, Sustainable Housing Initiatives, or the Research Symposium. Each of the students takes leadership roles within their committee and assisted 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.

In partnership with Dining and Hospitality, the program hosted a Costa Rican Theme Night in both first-year residential dining halls. Students worked with the chefs to create a custom menu replicating many of the dishes served on the organic farm in Mastatal. In addition to sampling the Costa Rican cuisine, 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 brought key stakeholders and community members together to hear about program outcomes and meet individually with the participants as they showcased 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 15 blogs about the students’ experiences and allows readers to gain better insight into the sustainable practices and cultural experiences in Costa Rica.

Once the formal program ends, many of the students carry forward the work they began 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.