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The ICADS Example: Costa Rica

Study Abroad: How I Did It

The Planning Process

Last March I weighed my options and decided that if I wanted to take a semester to study abroad it would have to happen in the coming fall. I had dreamed for years of living in other countries, and I knew that college was one of the few times in many people’s lives when they have the freedom for long-term travel.

Since I wanted to go to a non-English speaking country, but lacked foreign language skills I knew that a gradual introduction would be more comfortable than sudden immersion. I knew also that I did not want spend the whole semester in a city—where most foreign universities are located—and that I wanted a reasonable amount of academic freedom and an inspiring, challenging atmosphere with an academic program concentrating in my areas of interest.

Even though I had no Spanish background, I was most attracted to programs in Spanish-speaking countries. So by the time in the spring when I had to choose a program I had already finished a three-week immersion Spanish course and was currently in the middle of a second semester college Spanish course.

My advisers encouraged me to consider the direct exchange program that my school has with ICADS (Institute for Central American Development Studies), www.icadscr.com, in Costa Rica. I spoke with the study abroad counselor and students who had recently finished that program; their ideas and experience were crucial in helping me to make a decision. From them I received a good grasp of the program’s strengths and weaknesses; I realized it matched what I needed and that its potential drawbacks were ones that I could handle.

The ICADS Field Course is an ecology and sustainable development program that is divided into three month-long blocks. The first month is spent near San José, taking intensive Spanish classes and courses on the ecology and sociology of Central America. During this time we lived with host families within walking distance of the institute. This was an intensive yet low-key introduction to the country—we studied and practiced Spanish, yet we spent most of the day with fellow gringos. We had a fair amount of free time to go to the Internet cafe, find the best restaurants, see movies, etc.

During block two, the two professors, their assistant, and the students (up to 12) travel together around the country studying farming methods and sustainable energy projects and doing small science projects. We stayed mostly in hotels, stopping one weekend in San Jose.

The third block is spent in the location of your choice (usually a site visited during block two) doing an independent project. This can be an internship, a science project, or, commonly, a combination of the two. Finally, everyone comes together for a week at the end of the semester to turn in papers, discuss independent projects, and celebrate.

I am currently in the middle of my independent project (studying disease control in organically grown bananas and working on a permaculture farm). My energy level and optimism have been amazingly high considering the fact that during block two we were essentially in school 24 hours a day with almost no privacy—all in the rainiest month of the year.

How could have I prepared more thoroughly than I did? I might have read more about tropical agriculture, the subject of my independent project, but I would not have known where to start. I wish I had known more Spanish before coming—if I were to do this over I would try to arrive in Central America a few weeks earlier to get a head start and take an additional intensive language course. However, I was able to communicate comfortably with my host family, and the truth is that having confidence in your ability to communicate is a hundred times more important than being at a particular level in the language.

The most important lesson I have learned by being here is the perspective the experience has given me on environmental problems throughout the world. Now I am determined to be more active than ever before in efforts to protect the environment.

Many of the ideas I held about the developing world and even about travel and tourism have changed. The complexity and subtlety of issues of land preservation and agriculture are now apparent to me, and this will surely influence my behavior and academic direction for the rest of my college years and beyond.

I highly recommend this program and studying abroad generally to anyone wavering. It is one of the most richly rewarding, safe, yet adventurous ways of traveling. Whenever you can, put aside your doubts and take advantage of this unique time. Four months or even nine months will pass more rapidly than you could have ever imagined, and they are more valuable than years of the normal college experience.

Contact: Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), Dept. 826, P.O. Box 025216, Miami, FL. 33102-5216; 011-506-225-0508, fax 011-506-234-1337; icads@netbox.com, www.icadscr.com.