Story by April Espinoza
Mornings are cold, leaves are falling, and we are all reminded winter is quickly approaching. Ever thought about trading cold and snowy Colorado for warm and sunny Costa Rica?
Every year, a group of students pack their bags and make their way to beautiful Grecia, Costa Rica, to embark on a journey filled with rainforest jungles, fresh foods, and great hospitality.
SOWK 482A: Social Work in Costa Rica is led by social work instructor Marie Villescas-Zamzow, a 2017 recipient of CSU’s Best Teacher Awards. Through hands-on practice, guest lectures, and community interaction, students examine social work practice in an international setting.
We had the opportunity to sit down and speak with B.S.W. student Andrew Mikus, who recently returned from studying abroad in Costa Rica. With the experience fresh in his mind, he took us through what it was like to explore social work in Latin America.
Why are you interested in international social work?
I like learning about how social workers are used in international social work and development. I am especially interested in working with public institutions involving direct care such as hospitals and schools. I enjoy learning how many large organizations and NGOs really value social workers, especially people who are bilingual. I’ve always been interested in Spanish and a lot of the various cultures associated with predominantly Spanish-speaking countries. I find it really interesting and beautiful.
Why did you choose this specific study abroad program?
I chose to study abroad in Costa Rica because I wanted to see what social work looked like in a different country. It was a great blend of a lot of my skill sets and Professor Zamzow convinced me it was a beautiful country. She told me it would be a wonderful experience and a opportunity to learn.
Before departing, what were your expectations?
From everything I read, they described a beautiful country with friendly people. My expectations were met and exceeded by the hospitality and by the beauty of the natural landscape.
There’s a lot of people who embrace pura vida (pure life) and try to live as much of a reduced-stress life as they can. It’s a unique place in that it can be very small and rural and then have a lot of city life and thriving economy. It’s a pretty small country, there’s only 4.8 million people who live there. A lot of people move to Costa Rica from other parts of Central America because there is better economic opportunity, more stability, and universal health coverage.
What were you hoping to learn?
To have a different cultural lens to view social work from and see how it is practiced in a different country.
What was your initial first impression when you arrived?
I was happy I spoke Spanish. Even though a lot of people there speak English, a lot don’t. I was definitely happy in certain scenarios that I was able to communicate easily.
Were there any challenges?
The most challenging thing was having to come back home!
What was it like interacting with the locals?
The hospitality was really great in general. We stayed with a host family; it was me and one other student. Our host grandma — all of her kids were all grown and out of the house — was very happy to have company and cook for us. It was really good food, lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
As someone who’s interested in international social work, did it meet your expectations as a learning experience?
I would say it did because it really did give me that other lens to view social work from. There are definitely a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. A lot of it is very culturally based and based on the systems at-hand at whatever locations they’re operating. I learned that it’s a very fluid profession and there’s nuances in a lot of things that can vary from country to country, and from state to state.
What did you like the most about the program?
The opportunity to be in a different place while still being in a great learning environment. In the morning we would have Spanish class from 8 a.m. to noon with a 30-minute break for coffee. We practiced filling those [language] gaps in communication. In the afternoons, we’d do activities. We went rafting, went to a market in a village to see a woodworking shop, and to various social work agencies. We even got to see a permanent home for kids that are not likely to be adopted.
We had a lot of guest lectures come in from different organizations to talk about the work they do. One was a nonprofit that helped women who are victims of domestic violence, and they help by micro-financing and basically anything they can do. They also help women who are living in situations where they don’t have their own income. They help those women figure out a way to make their own money, create independence, and empower them to be able to separate from situations if they can. They also sell some of the stuff the women make.
We also had a guest lecture from the child welfare system who talked to us about how they set up kids when they are taken out of the home and how they try and help families not get to that point. Costa Rica has a collective society where pretty much everyone is required to be somewhat of a mandated reporter. They also teach kids their rights as kids, so they’re not victimized or anything like that.
If you can offer advice to students getting ready to study abroad, what would it be?
I would say to just be ready and open for a new experience and recognize that there’s so much that’s the same about people all around the world. To see it and experience it first hand; there’s no other way than to be there and experience everything with your own senses and perceptions. Realize that the world is not a perfect place. There’s no such thing as a perfect vacation, or destination, or place to live, but there is a lot of beauty in Costa Rica. I would say it’s a no-brainer for me, having been there now, to tell someone they should definitely experience it first hand.