For 20 Buena Vista University students, a three-week midwinter trip to Costa Rica was an opportunity to earn academic credit while being fully immersed in the country's ecology, language and culture.
"The learning experience was very intense," says Megan Kruckenberg, a sophomore biology major from Postville. "We were usually on a schedule, even on weekend excursions, so we didn't have much down time. Even when you were not in class you had to use Spanish, so you were always working your brain."
The trip was a pilot program in which all students enrolled in a Spanish class appropriate to their skill level, as well as a class in either Tropical Biology or Latin American Culture. The Spanish classes were taught in the mornings by local instructors at a private language school, the Instituto de Cultura y Lengua Costarricense, which operates the five-acre campus where the BVU students studied. The campus is located near Alajuela, a city of around 100,000.
Dr. Scott Richey, professor of Spanish at BVU, taught the Latin American Culture class, and Dr. Melinda Coogan, assistant professor of biology, taught the Tropical Biology class, which was offered at two levels. By taking a Spanish class, and a class in either Latin American Culture or Tropical Biology, the students were able to earn six credit hours that applied to their General Education requirements at BVU.
"We were very serious about giving the students six credits worth of work in this program," says Richey. "They were in class from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. five days a week and every weekend included field trips that were part of the class work. There was almost no downtime except for some afternoons and evenings."
The open air ICLC campus is nestled between coffee farms and sugar cane plantations. The students had the opportunity for weekend excursions to the tops of volcanoes, a biological research station at the edge of the cloud forest, and to the Pacific Coast.
"One of the attractions of Costa Rica is it is a small country with several ecological zones, so we thought a biology course would be natural to offer," says Richey, who initiated the concept for the study/travel program about a year ago. "On the eastern side of the Continental Divide, it is very flat rain forest that gets up to four meters of rainfall annually. On the Pacific coast side, the country is dry and hot. The central region, where we studied, is at a high elevation, where rainfall is less than 2 meters a year. This is where there are cloud forests, with clouds at least 300 days a year providing much of the moisture through condensation. It has steep terrain and lush vegetation. We spent most of our time at 4,000 foot elevation."
Coogan's classes were held indoors and then the students conducted field studies on the campus, as well as at other locations, and presented their findings in class. "You can read about cloud forests and the symbiotic relationships that occur in that environment, but seeing it firsthand really reinforces what you've learned in class," says Megan.
Richey's classes were held in an open-air classroom with a tent-like roof, and also involved several cultural field experiences, such as students going to the local farmers' market to buy something they had never tasted before, or reporting on life with their host families.
"And after having their Spanish classes in the morning, in the evenings the students would go to their host families' homes, which essentially served as 'language laboratories' since most, if not all, of the conversation was in Spanish," says Richey. "The students learned what it was like to be a Costa Rican by living with the families, eating their food, walking up and down their streets. It was an experience they could not get any other way."
One surprise for Richey was that the BVU students developed closer relationships with their host families than he had anticipated would happen. "For example, we were planning a fiesta for the closing days of our stay, but instead the students asked us to allow them to be with their families. They wanted the chance to have dinner and spend time with them before we had to leave for the United States."
"I loved staying with my host family," says Andrew Lupkes, a junior theater and history education major from Latimer. "We became a member of our family, went to church with them, went grocery shopping and met their circle of friends at multiple celebrations. I was honored to be a part of my family in Costa Rica and will be eternally grateful for their kindness and hospitality."
"The students I've talked with since returning to campus felt it was a valuable experience, both personally and academically," says Coogan, who also became a student when she enrolled in a beginning Spanish class. "My own experience taking Spanish was time consuming, but well worth it. I learned how to speak Spanish in sentences and felt well prepared to confidently communicate with the Costa Ricans."
"From this experience, I also know things about tropical ecology that I may never have learned here in the states," says Andrew, who was the only male student on the trip. "I have to thank Dr. Coogan for her energy and the amount of knowledge we were able to learn in such a short time."
It wasn't all work and no play for the students. "My most memorable experience was the zip line ride at Monteverde," says Megan. "At one point I was flying above the forest canopy at 424 feet above ground, which is something I thought I would never be able to do."
Richey spearheaded the pilot program after he was contacted by the Centers for Academic Programs Abroad (CAPA) organization in March 2007 about partnering with BVU on an international study program. During spring break, he traveled to Costa Rica to check out the program and was impressed with the academic intensity of the language school and the beauty of the campus and the area.
When he returned to BVU, he met with Dr. Dixee Bartholomew-Feis, professor of history and study abroad coordinator, and with BVU administrators to determine how this program might best benefit students.
"We decided to offer the trip as a pilot program because students were going to receive six hours of academic credit, which was a departure from our standard practice of allowing three credit hours for interim courses," says Dr. Michael Whitlatch, interim vice president for academic affairs and dean of faculty. "From all of the reports I received from faculty and students, the trip was a huge success and, pending some further study, we would like to continue it next year."
The experience also meshed well with BVU's increased emphasis on providing students with opportunities to deepen their knowledge and understanding of the world community. "Clearly from a global perspective the students gained a great deal from this three-week immersion in Costa Rica, which is one of the most attractive aspects of what this trip was all about," notes Whitlatch. Part of BVU's review of this program is to identify how it might be utilized by other faculty and academic disciplines on campus.
"We hope that this program will become a permanent fixture," says Bartholomew-Feis. "Students will always study Spanish as one of their courses - since we are based at a language institute that is a given. However, there is great flexibility in the other offering. Biology worked very well. Dr. Coogan began thinking about and planning her teaching in Costa Rica even before she moved to Storm Lake and officially joined the faculty. An offering in business, with an international focus, would be great. A course in environmental ethics would be an outstanding addition. The list is really quite extensive - Political science, History, Literature, Philosophy, Social Work, the Arts, Marketing, Management, Environmental Science, and on and on. We hope that over the years a wide range of faculty might choose to participate."
"This experience really enriched the value of my BVU education," says Andrew. "I came to BV to serve others with my education. I believe that going out into the world and showing what you have to offer to others reflects what you have learned thus far in your life, and my time at BVU has been a large part of that."