I can still remember, with absolute clarity, the emotions that surged through my body as the airplane descended through the lush mountains and billowing clouds into the Juan Santamaria International Airport. Joy, excitement, and a hint of anxiety were accompanied by this overwhelming feeling of peace. I had never set foot in Costa Rica, but instantly knew that I was home.
My semester abroad was the best of my college career. I knew I wanted to study abroad since high school, but my experience
exceeded all of my expectations. I went on fantastic adventures and had very unique, hands-on learning experiences. I made new friends, but also became much more independent. I fell in love with the tico culture and my host family. Of course, there were challenges and a few tears shed, but the personal growth and sense of purpose I gained was unparalleled. A simple blog post could never do justice to the 5 months I spent in paradise.
All semester long, I kept waiting for the infamous “culture shock” to hit. I had been well forewarned, but in my case it never came. I can only recall one instance in which I actually felt any sort of homesickness.
In contrast, the reverse culture shock has hit me like a train. My home university has lost a lot of the magic it once held for me. Some friendships have run their course. Small, seemingly insignificant things about our culture now frustrate me. Just thinking about my host family brings tears to my eyes because I miss them so much.
Study abroad helped me realize a lot of the things that are important to me and my personal happiness. Being surrounded by a family is one of these. My university here in the States is a 10-hour drive from my home, and I generally only get to see my family over holidays. In contrast, most university students in Costa Rica still live with their parents. Family holds a very important role in Latin American culture. Coming home to my host family every day after class was wonderful, and something that I grew accustomed to. This semester, I have had to reach out to my own family more in order to sustain that familiar connection that my soul craves. I now know how important to me it is to live close to family, or build up networks of friends that serve as their own sort of family.
Another thing that I really focused on during my time abroad was making the most of each and every day. I knew that my days in Costa Rica were numbered, and I actually kept track of the countdown just to remind me of that. I have always had an adventurous spirit, and I wandered all across that tiny country in order to explore all of its treasures. During the week, I focused on my school work and spent time with my host family; my weekends were dedicated to hiking the rainforest or relaxing by the beach. This semester, however, adventure has been much harder to come by. My university is located in the Midwest , far away from any tropical rainforests or pristine beaches. I have let myself fall into a rather lazy routine, where weekends consist of Netflix, laundry, and sitting around with friends. I have come to realize just how important exploring the outdoors and switching up the routine was for my happiness.
My semester in Costa Rica taught me a lot about what I want out of life. The struggle with coming home has been finding a way to combine those new things I learned with the dreams and goals I have always held. Reverse culture shock has come from the incongruence between my North American reality and my Costa Rican experiences.
The Ultimate Paradox
This brings me to what is, in my opinion, the ultimate paradox of study abroad. While I was off having the adventure of a lifetime, I forgot that life kept moving here as well. However, life didn’t move quite fast enough. It’s as if I went through a growth spurt, but I’m still waiting for everyone else to catch up.
I wish I could offer you the end-all, one-stop cure for these growing pains. The truth is, I’m still struggling with the re-entry process 4 months after my official re-entry date. I have come to realize how big the world really is, and how little I actually know. And that can be scary.
However, I would never change or give up the experiences that I’ve had. I loved my time in Costa Rica, and I love the person that I have become as a result of that. I learned to spend more time appreciating the little things. I have invested in friendships with others who studied abroad and we have shared our stories and souvenirs. I know what is important to me, as I prepare to graduate and embark upon my next journey. And any time the nostalgia gets the best of me, I have a cafécito and let my photo album transport me back to paradise.
Salina Haville is a student at the University of Tulsa and studied abroad with IFSA at Universidad Nacional de Costa Rica in Heredia, Costa Rica in spring 2017.