Ridgewater Abroad In Costa Rica: A Chance To Study Outside The Box

Students enjoying a coffee break at the Bird Zoo.
Students enjoying a coffee break at the Bird Zoo

View from Jon Wood's Costa Rica backyardBackyard view for a few more weeks.


By Jon Wood, Ridgewater Psychology Instructor, Spring Semester Study Abroad through Education for Global Learning

Stepping off the plane in Alajuela, Costa Rica, I was immediately struck by the sense of anticipation by everyone. Those with whom I traveled were bound for many areas of the country since Alajuela is located in the central highlands. Commuter planes, busses, shuttles, and taxis are preferred transportation to reach the capitol city of San Jose, coffee plantations, and more exotic destinations such as the Arenal Volcano and the Hot Springs, Monteverde with its hanging bridges, Manuel Antonio and its infamous monkey thieves, Guanacaste with beaches and plush hotels, and Guayabo National Monument, the largest archeological site in the country, containing 3,000-year-old aqueducts that still carry water.

Bordered on the north by Nicaragua, the south by Panama, the west by the Pacific Ocean and the east by the Caribbean Sea, this country is home to incredible biodiversity and has the largest percentage of protected land in the world. With the entire country being roughly the size of West Virginia, it is possible to explore much of it in a short amount of time.  From the cloud forests to the rain forests, to the central highlands, to the beaches on either coast, there just seems to be so much to do with not enough time to do it.

Instructor Jon Wood visiting a senior citizen at a senior center in Carrillos Alto.
Instructor Jon Wood visiting a senior citizen at a senior center in Carrillos Alto.

Being a student of behavior, I am most interested in the people, their customs and traditions. From the first cab driver at the airport to every person I have met since, I feel welcomed and at ease. This feeling exists in a country where I know very little Spanish and many know very little English. I had directions to the apartment where I was to stay initially, from one of the Institute’s administrators, Sonia Rojas. She explains that in Cost Rica, one does not find their way in a city of a half a million people by looking for street names and numbers, but rather directions are given in terms of landmarks. Quite literally, if directions include a right turn three hundred meters after the purple bush, and someone decides to cut that purple bush down, the directions would merely be adjusted to include a right turn three hundred meters from where the purple bush used to be. Distance is most often measured in time rather than miles. With many of the roads narrow and containing hairpin turns, it often takes a very long time to go a few miles.

I utilized the economical bus system to traverse the city and beyond – it allows me to interact with the locals. Traveling to the Institute requires me to change busses at a certain point to get to Carrillos, the small town outside of which the Institute is located. Getting there was no problem as I was pretty familiar with the landmarks where I needed to change busses. After living in the area for 10 days and making short trips on the busses, watching the landscape during cab rides, and walking the streets, I thought I had it under control. Coming back that evening in the dark, however, was confusing.

I thought I knew the intersection where I needed to transfer, but coming from the other direction, the stop came quicker than I thought. By the time I realized I missed it and confirmed it with those around me in my “baby-talk” Spanish, it was too far past for me to walk back. I decided to continue on to the central bus station and go back the way I came. I confirmed with my fellow riders which busses to look for, where to find them (each destination has its own bus station) and how and where I need to transfer to get to La Garita, my neighborhood.  As I exited the bus, the young woman sitting next to me, probably about fifteen or sixteen years old, stopped me and explained to me that if I went to a different station than the one I was planning, I could get on one bus that would take me home without having to transfer.  She tried to explain where the station was, but with my limited vocabulary, she realized it wasn’t sinking in. She took my hand and walked me to the correct station about three blocks out of her way to make sure I got on the right bus. I gave her a big hug and thanked her many times. I find that sense of community refreshing and hopeful.

The class I teach in Costa Rica is Psychology of Adjustment. I ask students to try to discover where their belief systems and values developed. Then I ask them to decide whether they are happy there, or if they might consider a change. Spending time here, I have had the opportunity to visit Alajuela, Carrillos, Grecia, La Garita, Atenas, Poas, San Jose, San Ramon, and, Tarrucares. I find that each community has what I can only describe as a feeling about them. Residents from each community interact differently with visitors. They have a pace that differs from one place to the next. They serve variations on similar dishes, and seem to have varying priorities. I began to wonder how customs and traditions of each community developed and what sort of beliefs and values they have incorporated into their familial cultures. Can you say, “Alternate assignment?”  So, the students will not only looking at their values, but working to understand the values of their homes away from home.

Pyschology classroom in Costa Rica
This classroom doesn’t look like anything at Ridgewater!
Costa Rica home sweet home
Costa Rica home sweet home