Expectations studying abroad were always one of the aspects of college I was looking forward to most. Although my major, second language, and goals may have changed, my desire to spend time outside of the United States remained constant. It’s quite a cliché to hear, “My semester abroad changed my life!” so I had a big milestone ahead of me as I chose to go abroad in my junior year. One thing I hadn’t dreamed of nor could have predicted was the effects that a pandemic for over half of my college career would have on this milestone. As the world began to “reopen”, I felt more confident that studying abroad could still be a part of my college experience as I had always hoped. Yet with the travel restrictions and surge cycles of the virus, I was left wondering. What am I supposed to expect from a semester abroad in the middle of a pandemic?
I would identify as somewhat of a “chronic planner”, between Google calendar and spreadsheets to plan out vacations. I prefer to prepare myself and I don’t particularly enjoy surprises or changes in plans. However, in the months leading up to leaving to spend my spring in Costa Rica, I found myself at an impasse, what if I planned all these things and experiences that I wanted to have but were made impossible given the restrictions of the pandemic? So, against my nature, I didn’t plan out my semester abroad in Costa Rica. In preparation for the semester, I did all the required paperwork and language assessments and figured out what classes I needed to take to be on track to graduate, but beyond that did very little planning per my standards. My rationale was: I could ruin my ability to enjoy the semester if I did all this research and none of it could come to fruition, or even worse when spikes seemed dangerously high- if the program wouldn’t happen at all. Flash forward to landing at San José international airport and realizing that studying abroad was very much happening, and I’m there!
My host family picked me up from the airport and after a 12+ hour travel day, I got to meet the people and see the places that would be my life for the next five months. As part of the Costa Rica semester through IFSA, you’re placed with a host family that houses and feeds you, while serving as a support system throughout your entire time abroad. I had heard from some of my friends that they had found their host families to be an incredibly enriching aspect of their experience and I would have to echo this same sentiment. One of my goals going into the program was to improve my Spanish and living in an exclusively Spanish-speaking household helped with that tremendously! Between daily homecooked meals and fresh fruit, with dogs to play with whenever I’m bored, and still my own private space for some alone time; it was the perfect situation. In addition to my physical needs being met, I felt like I was able to truly experience another culture. While living with my immediate host family I also got to meet their extended family and talk with Costa Ricans of all ages, since my host mom had 10 siblings there was almost always someone to talk to. Speaking of talking with Costa Ricans, I honestly didn’t expect there to be so many people who wanted to practice their English with me! In my classes, I wasn’t preparing for special treatment or any feeling of obligation from my classmates to help me since Spanish isn’t my first language. After introducing myself as an American exchange student, I was pleasantly surprised when in my classes I had multiple students approach me offering to help me since they spoke English. I genuinely couldn’t have imagined a warmer welcome from my family, classmates, professors, and anyone I met on the street.
Outside of the classroom, the IFSA program provided multiple excursions and opportunities to engage more closely with the Costa Rican culture.
We went to an organic farm for a day and learned about the history and markets of produce and products within the country. For lunch at the farm, we had the best food made of fresh ingredients from where we had been working in the morning. On another weekend we visited a wildlife rescue ranch and got to see the different animals they help rehabilitate from sloths to owls! We even got to stay after dark and have an exclusive tour of the nocturnal animals that you wouldn’t normally see activity during the day.
With both the homestay and entirely Spanish curriculum, I went into the program nervous and felt like maybe I wasn’t prepared enough. My positive experiences aren’t to say I didn’t have struggles, it’s not always perfect and I think preparing yourself for quick changes or hiccups along the road can help ground yourself. No aspect of life will be exactly what you imagine it to be, and that’s okay! It can be hard to see people post on social media about their exciting adventures and perpetually smiling faces while studying abroad. I remember being so overwhelmed and tired my first night that I just sat down on my bed and cried. Getting the most out of my experience was understanding that I shouldn’t expect to enjoy every single moment like they say: growth doesn’t happen inside your comfort zone.
I wouldn’t change a thing about my lack of expectations going into my semester abroad. I allowed myself to authentically experience and appreciate the environment around me while learning so much. IFSA provided the structure I needed to accomplish my lifetime goal of studying abroad and eliminated my fear of another aspect of college being “ruined” by the pandemic. So, my parting advice would be, to take the opportunity of a lifetime and study abroad, it will exceed your expectations (*wink*), trust me!
Cora Ferguson is a student at American University and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad Nacional in Spring 2022 semester.