Costa Rica: A Beautiful Accident

Story by Allen Meringolo | meringolo.a@husky.neu.edu

Photo by Yasmeen Al-Haj | alhaj.y@husky.neu.edu

I ended up in Costa Rica for Summer 2 almost entirely by accident.  In late January, I decided I wanted to go to Sao Paulo, Brazil for the Emerging Market program.  I wrote an application essay, highlighting my goal of being “a global leader” in the business world, whatever that actually means, and I filed all necessary paperwork. Then in mid-March, I received an email saying the study abroad office had “to cancel this Summer 2’s Emerging Markets program due to low enrollment.”  Although I was frustrated by this news, the study abroad office assured me they could easily switch my application and place me in another program.  I was left with a few choices at various European Universities and a sustainability program in Costa Rica at a place called “Earth University.”

Although I had no prior coursework or applicable experience in sustainability or agribusiness, agricultural business for the uninitiated, I relished the opportunity to jump headfirst into a new topic and step out of my comfort zone. Although this idea of stepping out of your comfort zone in the context of university study abroad programs is cliché, my time in Costa Rica truly helped me grow academically, professionally, and personally. The program was organized as a series of three to four day crash courses in different topics that Earth University professors specialized in. These crash courses consisted of a combination of lectures, group discussions, student presentations, and, most importantly, fieldwork.  We covered a range of topics including: community sustainability initiatives, carbon accounting, agribusiness development, solid waste management, and wastewater treatment.

In addition to the coursework, we lived with a Costa Rican family where we truly immersed ourselves in the culture.  Through various activities that would be on any tourist’s itinerary, such as zip lining, whitewater rafting, horseback riding, going to the beach, and spending a night in the nation’s capital, San Jose, our homestay experience allowed us to experience it all.  Half of our time was spent traveling around the country for these tourist activities and our coursework, and the other half was spent at the Earth University campus.  During our time on campus, Kent McLoud, the Earth University faculty representative for our program, organized four “language exchange activities over dinner.  In these activities, the other Northeastern students and I were paired with his first-year English language students.  The idea was that we would have the opportunity to practice a little Spanish and the Earth students would conversely speak a little English to us.  After a little initial nervousness and timidity on both sides, we gradually began to develop some rapport with the other students and enjoyed a few hilarious moments of glorious miscommunication.

One such moment occurred when one of the Earth University students asked me in English, “How is your Spanish?”  As was the norm of the exercise, I tried to respond in Spanish, “Mi vocabulario es buen pero,”  I told him, “My vocabulary is good but” then I wanted to continue “My grammar is terrible.”  But I could not come up with the word for grammar at the time.  So I hurriedly asked one of the bilingual Earth students down the table, “What is the word for grammar?”  He says, “Abuela.”  So armed with this new word, I excitedly continue, “Mi abuela es muy terrible.”  As I say this, all the Earth students just start cracking up.  I could not understand why. As anyone with an elementary level of Spanish knows – abuela means grandma; the bilingual student thought I asked how to say grandma.  So I told the students “My vocabulary is good but my grandmother is very terrible.”

It was moments like these, outside of the formal program, that made Costa Rica so enjoyable.  As I look back on my time in Costa Rica, I will probably forget most of the material we covered in the formal program, such as the technique for measuring the C02 in a natural carbon sink.  Yet the moments outside the formal program are the ones that I will never forget. I look back on the day that I was told the original program I wanted would be cancelled, more grateful than ever that I ended up in Costa Rica instead.