Casi Tica: Reflections On Study Abroad In Costa Rica

Bianca Robinson, for GPA -- I didn’t want to go to Costa Rica. Before this trip I had never been on an airplane by myself and certainly never traveled to the country, so the whole idea scared me completely. The only reason I ended up going was not because my academic adviser kept pressuring me to go (as an International Studies major at Drexel University, it was expected) but because my overprotective mother told me, “you’re going to be scared of any new experience, so why not?” With those words I pushed ahead with the application process and prepared to go to Costa Rica for three months. I didn’t want to stay home up until I got on the airplane. Then there was no turning back.

I don’t know exactly what I was so afraid of about going to Costa Rica. The language barrier, being away from my family, illness, kidnapping, or any of the other things that can go wrong abroad. But when the people from the International Center for Development Studies (ICDS), which runs the study abroad program I attended, dropped me off with my host family, all of those fears seemed to be confirmed for me.

As soon as I realized that I wasn’t able to understand what my host mother, Ana Monge-Zamora, was saying I wanted to get on a plane to go back home. I was in complete cultural shock and a part of me had a nervous breakdown. Then the next morning happened.

ICDS had arranged an orientation trip for all of the study abroad students at Poas Volcano. That is where I discovered that my initial reaction was shared by every other students. Even though the language barrier issue would still be there once I returned to my host family, having that shared experience with the other students truly put me at ease.

Before my trip, I was told that Costa Rica was a catholic, conservative and family-oriented country, but this didn’t hold true during my experience with my host family in San Jose. While children do live at home until marriage, things like family meals or activities were few and far between. My host parents went to church without their children. I didn’t get to bond much with my host siblings as they were always busy, but I formed a close bond with my host mother, who I ate with almost every day. We would have lengthy discussions depending on my homework load. We formed such a great bond that my own mother got a little jealous of our relationship. Ana made Costa Rica home for me. 

Beyond my mother’s encouraging words and my desire to improve my Spanish, I also wanted to visit Costa Rica because it is a model for sustainable development. If I had stayed in San Jose for the entire experience, I would have been terribly disappointed because the capital city is home to half of the country’s population. It’s a city of smog and nothing like the green paradise that is advertised. Thankfully I didn’t just stay in San Jose and was able to visit Manuel Antonio, Monteverde and other places that represented the popular green paradise image of Costa Rica. The question of whether or not these pristine areas can be sustained as the country modernizes will definitely warrant a second trip in the future.

My three month stay in Costa Rica was a huge growing experience for me. During my stay I became more American and more Costa Rican at the same time. As a minority I don’t always feel like a part of the main culture of the United States, but being in a foreign country truly made me feel more American. For it was the other Americans that came from various racial, religious and regional backgrounds that I had the most in common with. 

Despite being more self-aware of my American identity and my initial culture shock, I did adapt to Costa Rica and learned to love unexpected things. Rice and soccer were never my favorite things back home but in Costa Rica I found myself rooting for the U.S. soccer team with a passion. Towards the end of the trip, the rice that I despised eating for the duration started to taste good.

At first, I didn’t want to come to Costa Rica and in the end, part of me didn’t want to go home because home was now a little bit foreign to me. I didn’t want to leave my host family, new friends, or the life that I had created for myself. I had become a “casi tica,” or "almost Costa Rican." My only regret about the trip was that I didn’t stay longer. 

Image courtesy of ICDS.