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Student Success Stories

Studying Away: A Newfound Sense of Strength in Costa Rica

Kayleen in the Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Preserve, Monteverde, Costa Rica, February 8, 2020. Photograph by Will Cioci.

Less than an hour from San Jose, Costa Rica, lies Atenas in Alajueala, widely known for having one of the best climates in the world. It is in this Central Valley area, where temperatures moderate between 60 and 80 degrees fahrenheit and rich soil produces coffee beans, where Kayleen Meinen '21 found inspiration and strength.

"This experience abroad exposed me firsthand to the concept of sustainable agriculture,” said Meinen. “I was able to visit multiple farms that practiced permaculture techniques and supported the local economy. This has solidified my desire to continue studying ways to change common agricultural methods and to encourage conservation. I am inspired to volunteer abroad in the future, possibly with one of the farms I visited in Costa Rica."

Meinen, an Earth and Environmental Sciences major and Environmental Studies minor, prepared for the spring 2020 study abroad semester by researching Costa Rican culture, customs, holidays, societal norms, and history.

"I wanted to have an understanding of why things were done in certain ways. For example, the biggest thing I learned about Costa Rican culture is the importance of family. While spending time with a host family, I was able to see how close they were. Uncles, aunts, cousins, and grandparents all lived on the same road and interacted together often. There was a strong sense of community, love, and respect among family members."

This sense of togetherness and community also flowed into her academic curriculum.

"I learned how to work in groups with different people on research projects. We worked in small groups to learn and use Spanish. On Wednesdays, which we called “Spanish Wednesdays,” we made an effort to speak Spanish as much as possible. It helped that the locals were willing to talk with us and introduce us to new phrases."

As someone who considered herself to be “passive and reactive” before this experience, interacting with her classmates and experiencing the culture brought forth a personal realization.

"Being abroad made me learn to take initiative and push myself in order to learn and grow. I learned that I am capable of a lot more than I thought."

Meinen’s newfound sense of strength propelled her to explore many areas of the country, including Monteverde, Santa Rosa, Carara National Park, and a local waterfall, Las Minas del Aguacate. It was at the waterfall where she again experienced the sense of community in Costa Rica.

"The waterfall was a series of small falls that opened up to swimming holes. Local people gathered at the different pools. People were cooking out with portable grills, meeting up with friends, and enjoying spending time with each other. We were the only non-locals there, and at first I felt out of place and worried that we were intruding. However, soon after arriving, a group invited us to sit and talk with them. They were incredibly friendly and made us feel welcome. We had an amazing afternoon swimming, speaking and learning more Spanish, getting to know people, and exploring the area. It was one of my most memorable moments from the experience."

When asked what advice she would give to other students considering a study abroad experience, she is quick to mention the transformational change the experience produced in her.

"My time abroad provided me with many opportunities to push outside of my comfort zone. Each time I did, I learned something further about myself, the people I was with, or the country itself. One of my most important takeaways from the experience is to not be afraid to try new things and to seek opportunities to learn through doing."

She encourages other students to do the research and talk to other students who have studied abroad.

“Don’t dismiss the idea because you are worried about money or the experience fitting into your four-year plan. The Lighthouse staff have plenty of information on scholarship opportunities and will help you to find a program that fits your interests. Keep an open mind!"

For information on Virginia Wesleyan’s study abroad opportunities, including the Global Scholars semester abroad program, study away courses, and summer study abroad, visit The Lighthouse: Center for Exploration & Discovery.