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Faculty and Students Redefine Classroom
During Costa Rica Study Tour


West Windsor, 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.

"We 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.

With the 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."

According 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."

Kmetz 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."

Indeed, 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.

The students 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 Cathedral.

This all-female 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.

Community 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 elementary school.

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."

There 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.

Lynch 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 for dinner."

Despite 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?"

The MCCC 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.

Upon arrival, students and faculty stopped at the Spanish Immersion Center that provided support to the group throughout the week. From left are: Daniel D'Arpa, Victoria Angelini, Deborah Kmetz, Gabrielle Baggherian, Andrea Krizankovicova, Jasmine Villalba, Gianna Durso-Finley, Denise Kendall (back), Wanda Scott (front), Carol Friend, Katelyn Cubberly and Andrea Lynch.
MCCC students spent time with their community college peers in Atenas.
From left, students Andrea Krizankovicova and Gabrielle Baggherian and Costa Rican host Jennifer Buell-Horschman collect trash by a riverside as part of their community service contribution.
The MCCC group hiked to a volcano and sulpher lake as part of their exploration of the Costa Rican eco-system.
A local woman, third from left, teaches MCCC visitors Carol Friend
Denise Kendall and Deborah Kmetz how to make empanadas, a local favorite.
Time for adventure as the group prepares for a zip line tour.


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