Being Black in Costa Rica
story by Arielle Crook
Why did you decide to study abroad?
One day during my New Student Orientation, one of my peer leaders introduced herself to me and told me that she was a Biology/Pre-med major (like myself) and that she was minoring in Spanish. Next, she told me that she spent the majority of her summer in Costa Rica. I was instantly intrigued. I had studied Spanish in high school but never actually considered traveling abroad. Better yet, I had no prior knowledge of study abroad.
Later on in my second semester, my university held a Study Abroad Fair. The University Center was packed full of different representatives for various programs. I came across a few programs that caught my attention, all of which told me about different opportunities for me to travel to a different country and learn different languages. At this point, I was sold. After speaking to my advisor and my Spanish professor, I figured out what my best options were and we worked from there. I saw this as an opportunity to learn about what the world has to offer.
Tell us about the program you went on
I studied abroad through the International Studies Abroad Program (ISA) in Heredia, Costa Rica for five weeks. Every Monday through Thursday I would attend two classes: Advanced Grammar and Advance Written and Oral Expressions. At the end of the program I acquired six credit hours towards my Spanish minor. During my time in Costa Rica I lived with an AMAZING host family that treated me exactly like a family member. We would spend our evenings talking about world events, Costa Rican culture, watch TV and mostly making jokes. One of my favorite parts of my experience were the excursions that we went on every single weekend. This included trips to the lust green mountains in Monteverde, the beautiful beaches of Guanacaste, and the incredible views of Volcan Arenal. Every experience revealed to me Costa Rica's kindness and beauty. Another favorite experience was the night-life. Some of my friends in the program and I would go to the discotecas (night clubs) and I would learn different styles of dance such as salsa, bachata, and merengue. Overall, there were multiple opportunities for me to both learn academically and immerse myself culturally.
How did you pay for your study abroad experience?
I paid for my entire trip by working throughout the year at my on-campus job, using saved scholarship funds and other savings.
What is one thing you wish you would have known about studying abroad before you left?
Before I left the states for an extended amount of time for the first, I wish I had known from others' experiences of traveling while black. Never before did I have to define my ethnic or racial background like I did during this experience. Mind you, I attend a Historical Black College/ University (HBCU) where 95% of the university's population is comprised of black students. So I could say that I spend a lot of time around people that have similar backgrounds as me. When I went abroad, I barely had anyone around me that I could identify with. That in itself caused a few issues, but I was able to resolve them. My point is that had I connected with another black student that had travelled abroad and asked individuals about their experiences, prior to departure, particularly as a black student, maybe I would have been a little more prepared for what I faced.
Did you experience any discrimination abroad because of your race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or a physical disability? If so, what did you learn from the experience?
I experienced the opposite of discrimination in Costa Rica. It seemed to me that most natives were more accepting, if you will, of me than my white counterparts. As a black woman, I learned that Costa Ricans saw me as exotic and that was a little shocking to me because I never experienced that kind of attention in the states. I noticed that I was treated differently when I was in a large group with mostly white people than when I was alone.
In what way do you feel your experience abroad has prepared you for your future career? (Think both tangible things like language acquisition and intangible like learning to work with people who are very different from you)
I am currently on a premedical track and I have seen the need for multilingual physicians. Additionally, my high school Spanish instructor always told me that if you know a second language, you will always have a job. Having the ability to communicate in a different language is very important when it comes to being able to interact and connect with people from different backgrounds. Therefore, studying abroad has helped make me more comfortable with speaking the language, especially with strangers. This will be very beneficial to me when I'm a doctor.
Would you recommend the program you went on, if so why??
Yes, I loved my program. The staff was very organized and made sure that I felt prepared when I departed and welcomed when I returned. I loved how open and willing they were to answer any questions I had. Most importantly, it was very cost efficient compared to a lot of summer study abroad programs.
What advice do you have for students thinking about study abroad?
Don't allow fear to be your motivating factor as to why you don't travel abroad. Take a risk and step out on faith. As you learn more about your host country, you learn more about yourself; it is a reciprocal process. Once you return, you will realize how much that experience has shaped you and transformed the way you see the world.