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Name: Karen
Hometown: Richmond, VA
University: Christopher Newport University
Major: Biology
Program: Physical Therapy Intern
Program Location: Atenas, Costa Rica

How do you feel looking back on your experience in Costa Rica?

My trip to Costa Rica was something I will never forget. I formed such great relationships with the fellow volunteers, host family and employees [at the volunteer site] that I hope to maintain even after the trip.

Did you have any reservations before leaving for Costa Rica?

Before I left for Costa Rica, I was definitely anxious about the language barrier. I have been taking Spanish since middle school, but didn’t feel completely confident about having conversations in Spanish. I was also nervous about my host family and what kind of relationship I would have with them.

What made you want to intern abroad and specifically why in Costa Rica?

I really wanted to be immersed in a Spanish speaking culture. I have taken Spanish since middle school but had never been forced into a situation that I could only speak Spanish. I’m also going into a medical career and so, having an internship in a medical field was perfect for me. I was able to use Spanish in a medical situation, something future employers would really like. I chose Costa Rica because I had heard how beautiful the country was and, after looking at pictures and reading about their culture, I knew I would have a great time there.

How did you hear about World Endeavors, and why did you choose WE over other programs?

I heard about World Endeavors when I was searching different study abroad programs online. I chose WE over other programs because of the testimonies that past WE participants had posted online. There were so many positive things said about the program and it had the perfect internship for me in the country I wanted to be in.

What was your first impression of Costa Rica?

I arrived to Costa Rica around 9 PM, only to be bombarded by at least 10 or 15 ticos(what Costa Rican people call themselves) trying to either offer their taxi services or offer to call somebody for my friend and me. My friend and I just quickly said “no, gracias” and looked for the person who was supposed to pick us up. On the drive to Atenas, I noticed how mountainous and lush Costa Rica was. The next day, I really got to see how beautiful Atenas was. As I already saw, it was very hilly and had lots of trees but I got to see how colorful the town was. There were lots of colorful buildings and decorations around town. The ticos I interacted with during that first week were so accommodating and friendly that I knew these next 6 weeks were going to be incredible.

How did your first impressions/nervousness (if any) change from when you arrived to when you left?

Like I said in the beginning, I was really nervous about the language barrier between the ticos and me but, as the weeks passed, I became much more comfortable. Having conversations with members of my host family and with the workers and abuelos made me feel much more confident about having a Spanish conversation. I know I made lots of mistakes but everyone there was willing to help me out, making it easier to converse in Spanish.

Tell me about where you lived. Did it add to your experience? Do you have any interesting or special moments from the people you lived with?

My host family consisted of 4 people. The mom had 3 kids, and all 3 kids still lived at home. My friend and I shared a room in the house. It definitely took some time to get used to not having air conditionining or a hot shower. My anxiety about the language barrier was lifted because my host mom, who is a lawyer, was pretty good at English and her boyfriend was born in the States. When we weren’t able to say something in Spanish, we relied on either one of them to help translate. My host mom was a stay-at-home mom and so, her daily activities consisted of cooking, cleaning and Facebook. She is an incredible cook and so, our meals were delicious!

Did you have any trouble with language barriers?

At home, there weren’t really any issues with language because one of the sisters and her boyfriend spoke English and so, we used them whenever there was a discrepancy. At my internship, everyone there was really patient with me and the other 2 volunteers. If there was a word we didn’t understand, one of us would take our phones out and the person talking to us would type the Spanish word to get it translated into English for us. Even the abuelos (elderly people) at the placement were very patient with us and taught us what they could.

Tell me about your internship.

Every morning the 2 volunteers and I would assist the nursing staff with serving breakfast to the abuelos from 7:30-8:30 in the morning. We would deliver breakfast and assist those abuelos who needed feeding assistance. This gave us an opportunity to bond with the abuelos and nursing staff. Around 9, the physical therapist would tell us which of the abuelos to bring down for physical therapy. The entire complex was very hilly and so, pushing the abuelos up and down the hills there was a great chest workout. We would assist the physical therapist by performing electro stimulus to select patients, walking some patients, and performing seated and standing exercises with others. A lot of times, we would all sit together and color with a few of the patients. Whatever we were doing, the volunteers and I were trying to talk in Spanish to the physical therapist and the abuelos as much as we could. We even tried teaching the abuelos some English words. I think the most memorable part of this was teaching them how to say “good morning” because they would roll their R’s as if it was a Spanish word.

Tell me about a typical day for you from the time you got up until the time you went to sleep.

I usually woke up to the loud sound of cars around 5:30 in the morning but didn’t get out of bed until 6. As I got ready, I could hear my host mom shuffling and singing while she made me breakfast. My favorite was gallo pinto with an egg and a cup of coffee. My friend usually got up and ate breakfast with me before going back to sleep. I left for my internship by 6:50 because it was a 10 or 15 minute walk.

The other interns and I were told to get to Hogar de Ancianos around 7 but we didn’t do anything until 7:30. Until then, the 3 of us would sit around in the therapy area and talk until the breakfast bell rang at 7:30. Then we would go up to the kitchen and be split up among the nursing staff to help with breakfast. We would help pass out breakfast to the abuelos and interact with the ones who could. We also needed to help feed those abuelos who needed assistance. After breakfast, we would return to the therapy area to talk to the physical therapist. She would tell us which of the abuelos to bring down for therapy. Once the abuelos were there, we started with the exercises, which included electro stimulus, seated and standing exercises.

After 30 minutes, the therapist would find a stopping point and we would all go up to the kitchen area to drink coffee and eat snacks with a few of the workers at Hogar. We usually spent at least 30 minutes here talking and laughing with everyone. I think I got to practice my Spanish a lot more in this kind of setting because we were just socializing.

After this, we returned to the therapy area to continue with exercises until 11, when the abuelos had lunch. We would return the abuelos to the appropriate eating area before we left. The 2 volunteers and I would walk together for about half the trip before the 3 of us split up.

By the time I got home, my host mom would be in the process of making lunch. I would return to my room to change into shorts because I was sweating bullets after a 15-minute walk in the heat while wearing pants. (Girls weren’t allowed to wear shorts at Hogar.) My host mom would knock on our door when lunch was ready. My friend and I were usually the only ones at the table because the rest of the family would be busy with their own activities. My friend had to leave for her internship right after lunch. When I was done, I would talk to my host mom or host sister for a little bit before returning to my room for a quick power nap.

Once I got up, I would get myself together for a 10-minute walk up to the local gym that I got a membership to. The gym was on the second floor next to the grocery store. The doors were always open to allow for ventilation. It was a small gym but had lots of equipment. There were usually only guys working out when I would get there. After getting a solid hour in, I would stop at a local smoothie shop to get a protein smoothie before returning to my house. I loved stopping at this shop because the fruits were always fresh, making a delicious smoothie.

Once I made it home and finished my smoothie, I jumped in the shower to take a nice cold shower because I was hot and sweaty and there were only cold showers so this was the perfect time. The rest of the afternoon was spent catching up with friends and family back home and getting in touch with the other volunteers to talk or plan our next weekend adventure. When my friend got home from her internship, it was time for coffee and snacks with our host family. The snacks were either bread from the local bakery or something our host mom had been making. We usually just talked about how our day had been. Dinner was usually an hour or two later. Between meals and before going to bed, we would just socialize with the family or relax in our room. We were usually ready for bed by 9:30 at night. Although we were there for 6 weeks, our bodies never got used to the time change.

How did you get around?

I walked to my internship site and walked to get my errands done. On the weekends, we would take buses to get to different places around Costa Rica. They were cheap and reliable, making for a perfect way of transportation.

How did your time in Costa Rica impact you? What do you carry with you now because of this experience?

My internship in Costa Rica taught me to be more accepting of people from other cultures. In America, we are so narrow-minded about people from other cultures because everyone here is generally the same. We need to learn to be more accepting of people from different backgrounds so that we can be respectful of their ways, allowing us to get along more effectively.

What are you doing now? Do you have future travels plans?

I am working on a few prerequisite classes to start a nursing program next fall. I don’t have any current travel plans but I do hope to make it over to Spain sometime.

What advice would you give someone traveling abroad?

Be open-minded and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Being in another culture is over-whelming but if you are willing to adapt and try new things, you will learn a lot more about yourself and make the program abroad more meaningful.

Number one story you love to tell about your time abroad:

At my internship, the abuelos would try to teach us what they could in Spanish and so, me and the other volunteers tried teaching the abuelos some English. One of the phrases we taught them was “good morning.” Alice, one of the abuelas, was probably the most motivated to master a few English phrases. It was hilarious because when she said “good morning,” she rolled the “r” as if it was a Spanish word. “Good morning” became “good morrning” and we made sure she said it to us everyday because it made our mornings so much better.

Number one challenge about being abroad:

The language barrier was the biggest challenge about being abroad but it was the only way I was going to learn my Spanish. I tried not to get too frustrated when I couldn’t communicate with someone else in Spanish and tried to use different words, arm gestures and body language to try to communicate with others. You definitely learn better from making mistakes and so, be ready to make those mistakes!

Most important thing you gained from your time abroad:

Don’t be so wrapped up in your own lifestyle that you shut out those who are different than you. You learn so much more about other people and yourself when you open your heart and mind to others.

Anything you learned about yourself, US culture, etc?

TIME: Ticos don’t mind being late to anything and are very relaxed about their schedules, overall. Much different than in the states.

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