Courtney Kutzler is a senior working towards an undergraduate Psychology and 
International Degree. Last year, she completed back-to-back abroad programs in Miguel de Allende, Mexico through IE3 International Internships and a faculty-led program in Costa Rica through the Department of World Cultures and Languages. Since returning, Courtney has spent her time advising students who want to go abroad with her position as an International Ambassador through the Office of Global Opportunities. Read on to learn more about her unique experience!

One of the 4 year old boys I worked with.jpgMy first few days in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, I was overwhelmed and felt as though I did not know a single word in Spanish. Throughout my first week, I was constantly lost and confused. As I explored the streets, I learned that many of the people I met were welcoming, understanding, and helpful.With the progression of the next few weeks, I could not stop smiling as I walked around in the community and at the daycare I was interning at. I knew I belonged there because experiences like cleaning up poop from one of the kid’s pants or dissolving temper tantrums, that can be seen as difficult aspects when working with children, only motivated me more to continue interacting with them.

One stormy day, I was invited to play soccer with some of the friends I had made (other volunteers and locals). The plan was to get together at 3PM, but we didn’t leave until around 6PM. When my friends arrived, we all piled into the bed of a pickup truck that rattled as though it would fall apart at the next speed bump. There was lightning in the distance and I could see storm clouds rolling in. My initial thought was that if we had left when we planned to, we wouldn’t have had to worry about the storm. In that moment, I reminded myself that this was just part of the adventure.

My friend, Noel, drove a few miles out of town to a seemingly random field. We got out of the truck with our soccer ball and started to warm up. The teams were boys versus girls. The game was fast and with the wet ground and the lack of soccer gear (e.g. shin guards and cleats) we were covered in mud, sweat, and bruises by the end. Even more noteworthy, we all could not stop laughing. This experience was one of the many highlights from my experience in Mexico.       During my time abroad, I got to practice Spanish and learn about the culture. I did this with my friends, colleagues, and the children at the daycare. I learned and experienced important aspects of the culture by trying diffA friend and I on a weekend trip to Guanajuatoerent foods, learning about the history of the town, playing/watching soccer and boxing, and talking with an open mind and heart to everyone I met.

One of the skills I developed that I am the most proud of is the ability to adapt and be flexible. When something was supposed to start at a particular time and didn’t (like playing soccer), I always would think of it as part of the adventure. At the daycare, a lesson plan or activity would not take the time that was planned or the children would need extra time or support to complete it. Or there was some time for unstructured free time. In these moments, I got the opportunity to think outside of the box and problem solve.

The challenges above helped me grow both personally and professionally. The patience and interpersonal communication skills that I gained through speaking in a second language, attempting to understand individuals’ perspectives different than mine, and applying the knowledge that I’ve gained at Oregon State University about working with cultural groups and with children are invaluable. I knew at the end of this internship that I would utilize these skills on future trips abroad, working with individuals from different backgrounds in the United States, and in my future career.

Immediately after my return from Mexico, I prepared for a study abroad in Costa Rica. I knew this experience would be different than my internship. I was anxious about possible problems, but I was able to embrace it and I was excited for what might not “go as planned” because I’ve learned that those experiences are usually the ones that stand out and are the most meaningful.

After arriving in Costa Rica, I found myself homesick from Mexico. At first, I felt like I Ziplining over the cloud forest!shouldn’t be homesick over a place that I had only lived in for 10 weeks. However, after reflecting further, I was thrilled that I had such a meaningful experience in Mexico that I missed it so much. I was able to apply many of the social skills I had learned in Mexico, but I was aware that the culture was different and I continued to be sensitive and learn from and about those differences.

In Costa Rica, one of the most significant aspects for me was to have a host family. At first, it was uncomfortable. My family was very welcoming and friendly, but I was still a stranger occupying their house. It took time and many discussions for us to get to know each other before I truly felt at home. I got a better sense of the culture as I talked to them and was included in family activities. One important activity was watching soccer with the whole family and all of their friends. My host mom would make a huge meal and we would all watch the game together. This summer, Mexico and Costa Rica played against each other during the Gold Cup. Of course, I was asked who I was going to be rooting for. I made the mistake of outing to everyone that I wanted Mexico to win. The whole night my family called me Mexicana and made a point to cheer every time Mexico messed up or if Costa Rica got the lead. This experience made me feel more connected with my family because all families have differences, and in the end, we were all still having fun and bonding. I now know that I always have a home in Costa Rica.

The classes I had in Costa Rica and the experiences with my family improved my Spanish speaking and understanding. Both experiences gave me the ability to be more culturally aware, tested my adaptability, and improved my understanding of two very different cultures. Mexico was an experience that centered around my work environment and colleagues while Costa Rica focused on learning Spanish and utilizing it with my family and the rest of the community.

My best advice to others planning on going abroad is to connect with as many people as possible. This can be done even with a simple genuine smile or by spending time talking to a stranger. These connections will be helpful while abroad and can be life-long academic, professional, or familiar contacts. Lastly, make sure to keep an open mind and take advantage of opportunities that occur when abroad. (I was told once to always say “yes”…of course, within reason.) These are the experiences that will create massive personal growth and memories that will always be with you.Dia de Guanacasta

To learn more about the international opportunities are OSU, click here!

Esteban López lives and works in Costa Rica.  He works with Academic Programs International (API) overseeing programs in San José and San Joaquín de Flores, Costa Rica. In this entry, Esteban tells us about the beauty of Costa Rica, and reminds us not to forget a good attitude and a baseball cap when traveling to his country.


What brought you to be a Resident Director?
I used to teach Latin American Literature for U.S. college students. When API was looking for someone to work as their Resident Director for their Costa Rica programs, I got the opportunity to participate on the interviews and at the end, I was lucky enough to get the position as Resident Director for API.

What are some unique aspects of your city and country?
Costa Rica was the first country in the world that abolished the army in 1948. Costa Rica has reserved lots of areas for natural conservation, National Parks and reserves. Costa Rica is rich in flora and fauna and has many different climate zones within a small country.

What is one thing most of your students may not know about you?
They don´t know I have a big passion for books and classical music. Also, that I used to have a pony tail for more than 20 years. 🙂

What are some of your favorite aspects of being a Resident Director?
Being a RD keeps me young, also thanks to my position I have had the opportunity to explore my own country and culture along with my students. Their questions keep me always researching to learn more about Costa Rica. Also, the most rewarding thing is by the end of the program, we send the kids back home with their backpacks filled up with nice experiences, love for this country and people, and so much personal growth. To know that I was a little part of that makes me very happy.

What are some of the challenges of your job?
Dealing with personal issues of my students is always challenging. We all are different and I have to be wise whenever a difficult situation arises for one of my students. You always need to remember that being abroad could be difficult for some of them, and to remind them that you are there to help them no matter the nature of their problems

What have you seen as the biggest challenge for incoming students?
Perhaps the Costa Rican ways of doing things. At the beginning of the program learning about streets, addresses, directions could also be challenging. Depending on their Spanish level, this could be also a challenge. And of course, every students feels culture shock to a different degree.

What is your advice for students planning to attend your program, or to study abroad in your country?
I recommend this program for students that love to do outdoors activities; that rather prefer open air morning activities than going out at night. They have to be also ready for sunny hot days and rainy cloudy days, in our country this changes doesn’t depend on the seasons, it could change from one day to another, from one hour to next, hahaha.

Also it is important to come to the country with an open mind for social and cultural differences and to deal with a Central American society, where things may not be as structured as they are in the U.S. This could confuse you if you are not ready.

What is one thing you think students shouldn’t forget to pack for life in your country?
A baseball cap (hat) and umbrella!

What do you think is the most important take-away for education abroad students?
Humbleness. Once you see the world, once you go out of your small bubble, you realize how big the world is and little you are. How many lives there are, how many life histories, and how many people. You see how diverse and beautiful the world and people are. You start thinking less about yourself, but at the same time, you appreciate more what others do for you, and their friendship.

If you want to learn more about Esteban’s program, follow this link!

Gerardo Avalos lives in Costa Rica and works with The School for Field Studies (SFS) helping to spark student’s interests in ecology and sustainability. Atenas, Costa Rica, where Gerardo’s program is stationed, is small, yet beautiful. Gerardo invites OSU students out of their comfort zone, and into Costa Rica.

What brought you to be a Resident Director?
I served as a Tropical Ecology Faculty for 6 years before moving into the Resident Director position. By training, I am a plant physiological ecologist with interests on multivariate statistics. Being a scientist is different from being an administrator, but I wanted to develop the SFS Center in Costa Rica in new directions. In addition to consolidating our academic program, I wanted the center to be a model farm and an effective research institution to generate information about the management and conservation of natural resources for our clients in Costa Rica (national parks, protected areas, and local communities) so that our students could get not only an authentic educational and research experience, but leave behind a positive footprint on the country.

What are some unique aspects of your city and country?
The center is located in the town of Atenas, just 40 min away from the airport and the capital city of San Jose, and about 1 hour away from the nearest national parks (Poás Volcano in the Central Mountain Slope and Carara along the Pacific coast). Atenas has only 20,000 inhabitants, but despite of being small, it has all the basic services. It maintains a very traditional Costa Rican community, with coffee farms covering 40% of the area. Here, students can see a representative part of Costa Rican rural communities, traditional coffee production, and the celebration of local holidays like Independence Day and the ox cart parade. Atenas also has a very diverse international community. This area of Costa Rica presents some of the most pressing problems of the country as a whole, such as water production and conservation, urban expansion, waste management, and conflicts between these issues and biodiversity conservation. Costa Rica has maintained a leading tradition of democracy and political stability in Latin-America as well as of biodiversity protection. It is also one of the most biodiverse countries in the Neotropics with about 5% of the estimated number of species concentrated here. In terms of running a program like ours, these conditions have many advantages. Field trips could span strikingly different ecosystems in one day. Students can compare and contrast different agricultural models and different community profiles superimposed on different ecological conditions. This is an ideal country to study environmental issues and analyze the balance between biodiversity conservation with economic growth.

What is one thing most of your students may not know about you?
I spent one year at the School of Fine Arts at the University of Costa Rica studying history of art before switching to biology. I have an artistic side, and still do a bit of pastel and water color painting. I can also do cartoons, and have illustrated a children´s book. I did a bit of scientific drawing as an undergraduate student at the Biology Department at the University of Costa Rica.

What are some of your favorite aspects of being a Resident Director?
Observing the transformation of our students when they first come to the center and seeing how much they change and have learned from the program before they leave is very rewarding. Students could move on to graduate school, or to jobs that employ an environmental component, so you can see that the program has had a critical impact on them.

What are some of the challenges of your job?
This is mostly a balancing act. This goes across the board in terms of making sure the program works in all aspects. We plan our semester way ahead of time, looking at lecture schedules, community outreaches, field trips, and our week-long trip in Nicaragua. A program this complex is not an easy feat to accomplish. It requires experience and team work. Keeping a good team is critical for the program, the consistency of the educational quality we provide, and the professional development not only of our faculty, but of all our staff members. We are talking about a staff of 17 people, 9 of which function to support the program in terms of maintenance, cleaning, and cooking. It takes a long time and effort to form a good team.

What have you seen as the biggest challenge for incoming students?

This is a residential and very structured program. Students need to adjust to community living. They compromise to change certain behaviors for the benefit of the internal community, and abide by the sustainability contract (which a previous group of students proposed a few years back). Implementing down-to-earth changes (improving recycling, water, and electricity use, for instance) could be hard, representing a compromise and a more conscious awareness on the consequences of our actions on the capacity of our planet to provide services. Being less resource-demanding does not mean a decrease in our quality of life. Being closer to nature has multiple benefits that improve your perspective on life. Unplugging from the internet and decreasing the use of your gadgets and social networks is also an important challenge for many students.

What is your advice for students planning to attend your program, or to study abroad in your country?
Be open to new experiences; do not have preconceived expectations because every session is different and unique. What you positively learn from this will affect your life in the long-term.

What is one thing you think students shouldn’t forget to pack for life in your country?

A good pair of binoculars and a digital camera.

What do you think is the most important take-away for education abroad students?
Humankind is very consistent across the board. We have an amazing capacity for ecological and cultural adaptation. However, we also have a puzzling aptitude to repeat the same mistakes. Learning that deep inside, across cultural borders, we are all the same, and have invented ingenious ways to adjust to challenging ecological conditions (hopefully without repeating the same mistakes) is the key to a more sustainable future. Respecting and appreciating the diversity of ways to relate to nature is something you cannot learn from textbooks. You need to step outside your comfort zone and see the world.

To find out more about Gerardo’s program, follow this link!

Still looking for a way to satisfy your Contemporary Global Issues requirement and expand your horizons with international travel? OSU’s College of Forestry offers a unique program that may be just the fit for you. FES 365: Issues in Natural Resources Conservation is a two-part learning experience that consists of a 9-week E-campus course, followed by 10 days of experiential learning in Costa Rica. Offered each fall, this course allows students to develop a well-rounded understanding of natural resource use in Central America

There’s still time to apply! The deadline to apply for Fall 2014 (Dec. 11-21, 2014 in Costa Rica) is July 8.  Interested? See the program page or contact the instructor Ron Reuter at for details.

Wendy LaRue, a 2013 program participant, encourages students to take advantage of this course:

This particular Forestry course (FES 365) being offered online through Oregon State is an educational and life altering experience I Wendy LaRue l FES 365 Costa Rica wish all students could participate in. Dr. Reuter is dedicated to providing distance learners an opportunity to connect with an academic experience while looking through the eyes of another culture. Reuter’s dedication to the students and the class trip to Costa Rica is top notch. His attention to details encompassing the real world along with the educational aspects of visiting a country which leads the world in sustainable practices made the trip one that I will remember for a lifetime. We not only learned about the sustainable practices of this nation we lived them also. We ate, slept and hiked in places that most visitors would not be able to find on their own. If you are looking for a high-end resort style trip, this one is not for you. If you are looking to really get a feel for the people and a country as wonderful as Costa Rica, then consider this class one that will give you a feeling that you connected with another culture in a positive way. Pura Vida!