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MCCC Students Immerse Themselves in Spanish Culture While Visiting Costa Rica


Sociology and Spanish students from Mercer County Community College (MCCC) travelled to Costa Rica during their spring break, March 16-24, to learn about life in another part of the world.

“My favorite part of the trip was just being in a different country and having the experience of learning about a new culture,” said MCCC student Melissa Clair, adding that she came back with a newfound appreciation and understanding of the Spanish language.

Students travelled with MCCC Sociology Professor Gianna Durso-Finley, and Assistant Professor of Spanish and Coordinator of World Language programs Daniel D’Arpa. 

Activities throughout the week included visiting an organic coffee farm, zip-lining at Pacific Beach, visiting a senior citizen’s home, helping with a river clean up, Latin dancing, and attending a local arts festival.  They also visited the area’s tourist attractions, such as the National Cultural Museum, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and Volcan Poas, the world’s largest crater.

However several students agreed that the best part of the trip was visiting “La Posada,” a teenage pregnancy center, which serves as a haven for young women under the age of 18 who are pregnant and need a place to stay.  The center helps the girls get an education and get back on their feet so they can learn to take care of themselves and their families. 

Approximately 150 women and children currently live at the shelter, which helps sustain itself by offering a restaurant and pet salon to the community, which are both run by the women who live there.

“Mostly they need help getting the word out,” said Clair, who recommended the college consider taking students back to do a week of community service at the clinic.  Another student, Sierra Downes, is helping them put together a website about the services they offer.

While at the clinic, the students taught a yoga class entirely in Spanish.  “We had to be careful about some of the positions we did because some of the girls were pregnant,” said Downes, noting that some girls at the clinic were as young as 10 years old, and some were victims of rape and incest.  “It was a bittersweet feeling when we got them to smile,” she said.  “There’s not a part of me that doesn’t want to help them.  It was a very emotionally intense experience.”

Part of the cultural experience was having students each live with a host family so they could improve their Spanish and learn more about the local culture in Atenas, the town where they stayed about an hour west of San Jose.

“Staying with a host family was an amazing experience,” said Catherina DePaz, who stayed with a young couple who were just a few years her senior.  “They took me to dinner and the beach; I learned so much Spanish from them.”

Kurt Neinstedt said at first the cultural differences took him aback, such as soda being the drink of choice at home instead of water, which was shut off at 7 each night.  But soon he became comfortable in his surroundings.  “Just having dinner conversation with my host family was great,” he said.  “After the first few days it became very natural.”

According to Professor Durso-Finley, finding another culture’s traditions strange and then adapting them as your own is a key part of sociology.  “One of the goals of sociology is to make the familiar strange,” she said.

A few of the students noted the most important cultural difference they saw was the emphasis on family in Costa Rica that they don’t see here in the U.S.  “At night we would get together with the entire extended family to talk on top of a hill where we would watch the sunset,” said Downes.  “Family is the cement there; for them, family is everything.”

For Kara Weigand, it was the slow pace of life that struck her during her travels.  “Life there was relaxed and worry-free.  They live day by day, in the moment.  I love that,” she said.

Professor D’Arpa said he was happy with how his students conducted themselves during their travels, by really absorbing the Spanish language and spending a lot of time with their host families.

“I was incredibly proud to be part of that group,” said Professor Durso-Finley.  “They all got really involved and took a lot away from the experience.  I’m looking forward to reading the papers and projects that result from this.”

The next scheduled trip for MCCC students is this summer, when they will travel to South Africa to visit Capetown and Johannsburg July 15-26.  Professor Andrea Lynch and MCCC President Dr. Patricia Donohue will lead the students in their studies of the social and political transformation of these areas. 

To learn more about the college’s study tours and other study abroad options, click here.
MCCC students and staff prepare to embark on their journey through Costa Rica.  Pictured, from left, are: Anajae Register, Jennifer Horschman (Costa Rican guide), Kara Weigand, Veronica Parrish, Callie Durso-Finley, Lea Brown, Professor Daniel D’Arpa, Tomika Sommers, Professor Gianna Durso-Finley, Catherina DePaz, Sierra Downes, Kurt Neinstedt, and Melissa Clair (front, kneeling).

Students enjoy some of the local food in Costa Rica.  Pictured, from left, are Anajae Register, Gaby (Costa Rican guide), Veronica Parrish and Tomika Sommers.

Pictured is MCCC student Lea Brown, Spanish Professor Daniel D'Arpa, two Costa Rican host family mothers, and MCCC student Sierra Downes.

Pictured is Spanish Professor Daniel D'Arpa with oxen, an important part of the Costa Rican culture.  Oxen were historically used to pull carts loaded with coffee beans, but today they are used during festivals and parades as a reminder of their historical significance.

The MCCC group enjoyed zip-lining at Pacific Beach.  Pictured in back, standing, from left: Odilie Calvo (Costa Rican guide), Tomika Sommers, Sierra Downes, Melissa Clair, Gaby (Costa Rican guide), Callie Durso-Finley, Professor Gianna Durso-Finley, and Lea Brown.  Seated, from left: Anajae Register, Catherina DePaz, Veronica Parrish, Maria (Costa Rican guide), and Kara Weigand.  Kneeling in front, from left, are Professor Daniel D'Arpa and student Kurt Neinstedt.

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