Scholar Ceil on Cultural Outreach

McLean County Diversity Project   c/o Jeffrey A. Schwartz   PO Box 58   Downs, IL  61736

All content is © Copyright 2012 McLean County Diversity Project

About a month ago, three other scholars and I got the amazing chance to travel to Costa Rica and stay with families there. This was made possible by The Diversity Project.

The trip had been planned since last year. I knew we’d be matched up with Costa Rican students and live with their families, but I had no idea what the whole experience would be like.

I was excited about the chance to travel and learn about a different culture. Now that I’m back and I’ve had a chance to think on the trip, it’s hit me how many different things I really got to experience, and I’ve learned how cultures can be so different, but also be similar.

From the very first day to the moment I left, I always was absorbing different parts of the culture. The food, the music, the tropical landscape – all were foreign to my life in Normal, Illinois. I also got to experience how Costa Rican teenagers had a lot of things in common with us.

When our plane landed in San Jose, the country’s capital, I was with my American friends. We traveled about two hours to Venecia. That is where we lived for two weeks, each with a different host family. It wasn’t until I was at home with my host family that it sunk in that I was actually in another part of the world.

Even though I’d studied Spanish in school, facing a room full of native Spanish speakers was very different. I found in my first days that even asking simple questions were difficult. I had to think through the translation in my head before asking something like; “What time do we get up for school?” - instead of it being a natural flow. It was a little intimidating.

I didn’t realize how much I took natural communication for granted.

As the days went on I began to understand more and more. Instead of just hearing a jumble of words with one or two that I knew, I began to pick up sentences, and eventually I was able to take part in full conversations. Once I got the hang of speaking Spanish, I felt more comfortable around the family, and started to learn more about the people in my house.

The home I stayed in was in a Venecia neighborhood. There were six children in the family, and they and their parents made me feel very welcome. This made my trip different than if I were to have stayed in a hotel as a tourist. I was able to take part in normal everyday life there. The family ate meals together, and we went to different activities together too.

On Father’s Day, I helped them make a poster for the family’s Dad, and we had a nice chicken and rice dinner together that night. That kind of celebration made me realize our cultures had similarities. My host sister and I also found we had things in common – we both really like reading for one thing, and we both have big dogs for pets.

Most days of my trip, I attended the local high school with my host sister, who was about my age. It was interesting to see how different school was there. Because of the hot, humid climate, instead of hallways, students cross open areas to get from class to class. And high school is more like U.S. colleges. For example, my host student didn’t have class every day and some school days lasted longer than others. They also only get a two-week break for summer!

Of course there was more than school, my host sister and I hung out with her friends, and her siblings – watching TV, going to the park, and going out for pizza or ice cream.

We also got to take field trips with our host students. One I remember was this zoo that besides having everything from butterflies to toucans to jaguars also had amazing waterfalls. It was a place like nothing I’d ever seen.

In the end, I took away a lot of things from this trip, but one of the most important parts was the friendships I made in Costa Rica. I feel like these are friends that I will have for my whole life. In January, the Costa Rican students who hosted us will travel here, and we’ll get to share our culture with them.

With today’s technology, I don’t have to wait until January to stay in touch. And we can contact each other a lot easier than it was for previous generations.

Instead of writing and mailing a letter, waiting for my friend to receive it, and then have her write and mail one back to me, or paying for expensive international phone calls, all I have to do is be connected to Wi-Fi, and send a message on Facebook.

If I’m lucky, and my friends are online too, we’ll be chatting like we’re right next to each other instead of being in different countries.

- Ceil, Veteran Scholar
McLean County Diversity Project
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