From Costa Rica to Denmark: Study Abroad in High School and College

by Melissa Larson

Here I am again, standing over an empty suitcase contemplating just how much stuff I can fit into it. The last time I traveled overseas, I managed to pack nearly every t-shirt and pair of shorts I owned into my checked bag. You would have thought that I was going to live in Costa Rica for a few months as opposed to just three weeks. Back then, I was a rising high school senior making a trip to Central America for the first time. This year, I am a rising senior in college ready to convert my dollars into Danish krone instead of colones.

Although I am preparing for a semester-long public health program this time around, I cannot help but reminisce a little about that trip I took four years ago. The Global Leadership Adventures program primarily focused on exposing us to community service and travel. Staying in Costa Rica for only a few weeks taught me how to appreciate and enjoy being immersed in a foreign culture rather than being intimidated by it.

Prior to leaving, my advisors had emphasized the need to be flexible and willing to adapt to the unexpected. The first test of this appeared right at the start of the program. I expected our bus from the airport to take us to the school campus that the travel booklets had listed as our housing. We were taken to a camp where, instead of dorm rooms, we lived in cabins. Although this was not what I would describe as my ideal living arrangement, it became the reason why I built friendships with my five cabin-mates. Our shared fear of grossly large bugs and figuring out how to share a set of cabin keys without cell phones made for great bonding experiences.

While building friendships with the rest of the students, I also had the opportunity to bond with elderly Costa Rican men and women during my community service portion of the program. I helped prepare lunches for a care facility that they visited to receive free meals and spend time with their friends. The cooks and visitors were more than willing to talk to us; in many ways, this became more valuable for learning Spanish than my classes. I remember feeling awkward and unwilling to attempt to speak my broken Spanish on the first day, but by the last, the students and new elderly friends said teary goodbyes.

All of these experiences were invaluable, so the adventure portion of the program was icing on the cake. While our teachers took us around the city to practice our language (and learn the hard way that bartering is commonplace when buying food from the market), our program directors took us on excursions every weekend. We visited the nicest beach I have ever been to, zip-lined in the rainforest, hiked to the bottom of a waterfall, spent an afternoon at a natural hot spring, and went whitewater rafting. We definitely met our adrenaline rush quotas every week.

My time in Costa Rica is still one of my favorite experiences to look back on as I move into my last year as an undergraduate. I graduated from Round Lake High School back in 2010, and it did not take long into my internship with the Schuler Scholar Program this summer to see how many positive changes and additions have been made to their programming. Although the Scholars have very full plates starting in middle school, I encourage each one of them to try to study abroad during one of their high school summers. A short trip overseas helped me get out of the bubble of Round Lake and realize that I want to incorporate international travel into my academic, professional, and personal life. While Denmark may be nothing like Costa Rica, I hope and expect that my transition into this semester abroad will be easier, knowing that I have done it before. Until then, goodbye, adios, farvel!

Melissa Larson is a Schuler Scholar Program intern for summer 2013. She graduated from Round Lake High School in 2010 and is a member of the Macalester College Class of 2014. Melissa is an International Studies major with minors in Japanese and English and a concentration in Global and Community Health.

In just a few weeks, she will depart for Denmark to study in Copenhagen through the Danish Institute for Study Abroad.


Popular Posts