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Eco-Social Lifeways in Costa Rica

Ocean View of Montezuma

Just after winter break, nine Warren Wilson students and two trip leaders departed on the Eco-Social Lifeways in Costa Rica study abroad course. From December 29 to January 14, 2008, the class visited three villages in Costa Rica after preparing for the trip during the fall semester. As the title suggests, the course stressed the ecological, economic and social issues of the country. Leading the course was social work professor Lucy Lawrence and assistant registrar Marion Yeager '88.

To prepare for the course, students and trip leaders studied the culture of the country intensively. Yeager taught the students Spanish, focusing on critical vocabulary specific to the work they would be doing during their visit. The crux of the course involved pre-departure research on a specific social issue in Costa Rica. That research and inquiry continued once the students were on the ground, where they observed first-hand what they had been studying for sixteen weeks.

Group Photo on the Last Day

Though a social work course, none of the participating students were social work majors; rather, they were drawn to the course by their own interests. Chris Sterling '10, an outdoor leadership major, researched eco-tourism, its growing presence in Costa Rica, and its multitude of effects on both the environment and people's lives. Another student explored gender roles in the country, particularly the rising independence of women and the resulting inferiority-complex of men. Other topics included child prostitution and sex tourism, adolescent drug use and underage drinking, and domestic violence. Ultimately, this scholarly study grew into a personal understanding of the issues through individual interaction and relations.

Students visited three regions during the course: the highlands of Finck-la Flor de Paradiso, the Nicoyan Peninsula on the Pacific coast and Atenas, in Costa Rica's central valley. Each location offered different work and study opportunities. In Finck-la Flor, the group stayed and worked on an organic farm, which is part of the agro-tourism movement in the country. There, students worked on the farm, studied the Spanish language, and interviewed the locals to gain a native perspective on their particular research topic.

Waterfall in Montezuma

The Nicoyan Peninsula offered a different setting, a lower-class community that Yeager describes as "pretty close to the bone." Students lived with local hosts and gained a perspective on the country's social issues on a more intimate level. "Living with families in the community gave the issues a face and a name," Lawrence says. Students also served the community by spending several days painting a senior-citizen center.

The last area the students visited was a family-owned coffee plantation in the more middle-class Atenas, a striking juxtaposition to the Nicoyan Peninsula village. As Yeager points out, "Part of the experience of visiting another country is seeing the range of socio-economic conditions." When asked about the emotional transition among the three varying locations, students expressed both acceptance and reluctance. They were sad to leave their new-found friends, but, as one student said, "We knew it was time to go; we had done what we needed to do."

To finish their trip, students gave presentations on their research topics at the coffee plantation's hotel. "I feel strongly that study abroad programs are experiences that all students should take advantage of. The Costa Rica course provided a wonderful opportunity to experience another culture," Sterling said.

Written by Finn HaverKamp