N.J. -- Sociologists frequently talk about culture shock -
the difficulties inherent in adjusting to a new culture. That
was the challenge for eight MCCC students and their faculty
leaders during their Study Tour and home stays in the small
town of Atenas, about an hour west of San Jose, Costa Rica,
during spring break, Mar. 11-18. According to all post-trip
reports, the effort was a glowing success.
traveled, studied and returned home safely," said Study
Tour Coordinator Andrea Lynch, who accompanied the students
along with Sociology Professor Gianna Durso-Finley and Assistant
Spanish Professor Daniel D'Arpa. Associate English Professor
Carol Friend also traveled with the group.
goal of a true immersion experience combined with community
service, each student stayed with a different family. The
first hurdle: Atenas has no Internet or cell phone service.
"Some of the students experienced withdrawal," Lynch
noted. "But by the third day, they were calling their
host parent, 'mom'. And by the end of the trip, it was like
everyone had a second family."
to Sociology student Deb Kmetz, the initial unfamiliarity
turned into a welcoming environment that "almost felt
like home." Never having been further south than Key
West, Fla., Kmetz was fascinated by the ordinary - roosters
crowing at 3 a.m. and septic systems that cannot handle toilet
paper. "You throw the paper in the trash. It's totally
normal in homes. There are signs posted in tourist spots."
emphasizes, "This was so much more than a tourist trip.
We met with regional experts and with social activists. I
came home almost ready to sign up for the Peace Corps."
the itinerary redefined the traditional classroom. As part
of a discussion of eco-tourism, economics and the environment,
the group hiked to Volcan Poas in the Costa Rican Rain Forest,
a magnificent spot that boasts the world's largest crater
and a nearby sulpher lake. They visited an organic coffee
farm, learning about cultivation, small business, and the
export process so critical to the local economy.
also studied the nation's approach to health care. A local
physician explained the Costa Rican system, which provides
for citizens through home and clinic visits. They talked about
immigration issues with a local leader and were fascinated
to learn of the parallels between the United States' issues
with illegal immigrants from Mexico and Costa Rica's stream
of immigrants from Honduras and Nicaragua. Cultural and religious
components included a visit to the National Museum and Metropolitan
student group also gained a deeper understanding of the issues
facing women in this largely rural society. They visited a
center for battered women that runs an orchid cooperative,
generating income as a critical step to helping their clients
take charge of their lives. They visited a teen pregnancy
center, where female victims of rape, ages 12 to 21, are provided
with shelter and schooling for themselves and their children.
They spoke with a female activist, who noted that the country
is doing its best to improve equality on paper, but still
has a long way to go in practice.
service was also on the agenda. Students participated in a
river clean-up, collecting and carrying out large bags of
trash as monkeys screeched at them from the trees. Another
group assisted with English language instruction in a one-room
Quite striking to all the Mercer visitors was the Costa Rican
emphasis on learning English as the path to a better future.
In a visit to the INA Language Exchange, the Costa Rican equivalent
of community college, Mercer students broke into groups to
speak English with their Spanish peers. Explains Professor
Lynch, "The Costa Rican students spend 11 months in English
immersion classes, preparing for possible jobs in call centers
or as a stepping stone to university. All come from poor farming
families and it's very competitive to get in. They are very
earnest. One student told us how proud is family is of him
and how honored he is to have been selected."
was also time for fun. In a cooking class, students learned
how to make meat-stuffed empanadas, a Latin favorite. They
also took a Latin dance class with "an instructor who
knew the moves," Lynch said. And for true adventure,
all signed on for a zip line tour, soaring over the rain forest
on a 12-stop circuit. They bartered with local artesans, returning
home with handcrafted items to treasure for a lifetime.
noted that the students' home stays were outstanding across
the board. In addition to experiencing life with a local family,
they also enjoyed substantial and delicious home-cooked meals
- with one dish clearly standing out. Said Lynch, "We
had rice and beans with eggs for breakfast. We had rice and
beans for mid-morning snack. We had rice and beans with chicken
the lack of internet access and an occasional lack of hot
water, all agreed that the life they experienced in Costa
Rica was pretty nice. Not surprisingly, the lament of "not-enough-time"
was the same sentiment expressed by students returning from
last year's Study Tour to Italy. And then there was the question,
"Where to next year?"
Study Tours program continues in July with a trip to Paris
for students studying biology and food and culture.
More about the Study Tours program and Semester
Abroad options is available here.