Jennifer is a teacher from Wisconsin. She taught children as a volunteer in Costa Rica with World Endeavors.
How was your experience in Costa Rica?
It was fabulous, absolutely fabulous. I loved it.
Did you have reservations before leaving for Costa Rica?
My major concern was that I had never left the country or flown by myself before. I was nervous about traveling by myself without knowing anyone. I was excited about taking this adventure but I was also very, very nervous.
What were your first impressions of Costa Rica?
I hadn’t been abroad before. I was surprised that the people in Costa Rica were definitely not as busy as we seem to be in the US. Everyone was very laid back and relaxed. It took a while to get through customs, but no one was irritated or fighting. They were all patient. The Costa Ricans were very, very friendly, welcoming, and helpful.
What was a typical day like for you?
I volunteered at two different placements. The first was a preschool where I worked three hours a day, three days a week. Here I was working in the classroom with 2-3 year old students. I acted as a teacher’s aide. I helped sing songs, do activities (coloring, tracing, writing) and helped with supervising on the playground. I was like an extra set of hands for the teacher.
My second placement was at a daycare/community center. It was open to the community, and supplied meals for those in need. Some children would stay during the day for care. It wasn’t always the same kids who stayed each day. Here I had a wide range of responsibilities. I helped the teacher or worked with the kids on my own. I was able to help with a variety of different tasks.
What was a favorite thing about your volunteer placement? The most challenging?
My favorite part was getting to know the kids and spending time with them. They were very friendly and understanding that the volunteers and I didn’t completely understand Spanish. They were nice and would laugh when I pronounced something wrong, but were very friendly and understanding.
The most challenging aspect was that I didn’t always know enough Spanish to talk to the kids. I sometimes struggled with knowing what to say and when to say it.
Why did you want to volunteer abroad in Costa Rica?
I wanted to volunteer abroad because I was originally minoring in Spanish, and I want to teach Spanish of ELL in the future. I wanted to go abroad so that I could improve my language and be exposed to another culture. I wanted to experience a Latin culture so that I would be more able to understand and relate when I’m teaching students from a Hispanic background.
I went to a study abroad fair at my college campus and World Endeavors was one of the booths there. I signed up for many email lists with other companies but World Endeavors made them most contact, and I was the most familiar with them when it came time to decide.
Did you find any challenges with the language barrier?
I started learning Spanish in 7th grade, so I can definitely understand a lot of it. I understand much more than I can speak, but everyone down there was so nice about it. They would slow down when talking to me or try and rephrase things so that I could understand.
How did you get around?
In town I walked. I took the bus to the different schools where I volunteered. It was very easy to understand the transportation. I was given a bus schedule the first day, and the other volunteers were helpful about letting me know when to get off the bus the first few times.
How was living with a host family?
I definitely feel that it added to my experience. My host family cooked for me, and they would ask me about my day. Living with them was like coming home and talking to my mom about my day at work. They were very welcoming, warm and friendly. I had my own room and bathroom. Living with the host family allowed me to see how families in Costa Rica interact with each another. By the end of the month there I was very comfortable, I had developed a routine. I felt like I was in my own house; it was very comforting.
I had many special moments with my host family. My host mom and I would visit with each other at the store she ran by one of my volunteer placements. The daughter of my host family sells jewelry and accessories, and before I left they picked out a few pieces to give me. It was through little things like that where I could tell I was welcomed.
What did you do in your free time?
On the weekends I met up with a couple different groups of volunteers to travel. We were able to get in touch with someone who coordinated travel and tourism in Costa Rica and he helped us set up our trips. I went on a volcano tour, zip lining and to the beach. Every weekend we did something different.
What was the food like in Costa Rica?
A lot of meals were actually somewhat similar to the food in the US. The one difference was gallo pinto, a mixture of rice and beans which was served with almost every meal, breakfast, lunch and dinner. It’s even on the menu at McDonalds!
I really like their spaghetti sauce, and my host mom made amazing breaded fish, the best I’ve ever had. The only meal I really didn’t like: cow tongue. I probably wouldn’t have minded it that much if I hadn’t known what it was ahead of time, but I did. It had a very metallic taste and was softer than most meat. I very politely ate one piece but that’s all I could do.
What were the most noticeable ways that your time abroad impacted you?
It definitely helped my Spanish language capabilities. I’m in an additional Spanish class this semester, and I find that I can understand my teacher very well. I’m also much more comfortable conversing than I was. In the future when I’m teaching Spanish or ELL students, this experience will definitely be helpful. And it will be a very beneficial experience to have on a resume.
I learned that I can be a very independent person. I didn’t realize how much I rely on other people when I’m in the United States. This experience made me a stronger person, realizing I can do things by myself and I should do things by myself more often.
What advice would you give to someone traveling abroad?
I feel like I over-packed. I tried to bring enough clothes to last me the entire month, but my host family was constantly offering to do my laundry, so that really wasn’t necessary. I never seemed to pack enough for my weekend trips though, so I would advise someone to try and plan accordingly in terms of packing.
In terms of money, I would say make sure you bring enough, or a means to take more out. I had to have money transferred to me and it ended up being pretty complicated. I also found that you’ll get a better exchange rate if you wait until you’re in the country to exchange your money.
The biggest thing is if anyone has the opportunity to go abroad they should definitely take it. I was extremely nervous when I went but I’m so glad that I did it. It was amazing. It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Take the step. Don’t decide not do it because you’re scared. I’m so glad that I did it.
Number one story you love to tell about your time abroad:
I would say when I was at the daycare and the students were playing different games in groups. I didn’t always understand the games but they always wanted me to play. One day they were playing a game where everyone had to get up when something was called (e.g. if you’re wearing earrings, flip flops or a checkered shirt) I didn’t fully understand but a little girl followed me around to help and explain the game. She would drag me and direct me, and was so excited to help out.
Most important thing you gained from your time abroad:
Seeing how a different culture lives and how people go through their daily lives. I was able to see just how drastic the difference is. For example, all of the students in Costa Rica wear uniforms to school, and everyone seems to be incredibly laid-back. It was so beneficial for me to see another culture and understand that everyone else has a different way of living. I am now more understanding of people in the United States who come from other countries and cultures. This experience will help me when I am working with students who come from other cultures.