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Two years ago, I participated in the first DukeEngage in Costa Rica and it was an incredible experience. I made an effort to take advantage of this unique opportunity and I can proudly say that I did my best to do so. I was put (and put myself) in new, difficult situations and I grew as a person because of them. But looking back, I know that there were opportunities that I let slip by.


That’s why when Debra Hamilton mentioned that she wanted someone who had already done the program to help her out this year, I jumped at the chance.


After coming home from DukeEngage in the fall of 2017, my biggest criticism of the program was the lack of opportunities to participate and engage with the communities in the Monteverde region. Because our group spent so much time together, and we were oftentimes exhausted from our fieldwork, it was very easy to rest and relax together and remain isolated from everyone else. We had limited opportunities to speak Spanish outside of our classes because we just spoke English with each other.


I wanted to address that concern.


My first step was to coordinate a homestay in Santa Elena. Living with Laura and Errol Cruz Cordero has been an amazing experience. It’s forced me to speak Spanish every day and it’s given me a glimpse into what daily life is like in this region. They’ve opened their home to me and we’ve had the chance to watch Telemundo dramas, Copa de Oro soccer matches, and the evening news together. Sometimes, communicating is hard and we need to break out Google Translate, but we’ve been able to discuss topics such as family, hobbies, and what it’s like to live in our respective countries.



Living with the Cruz Corderos has also afforded me more independence, and I’ve had the chance to sample more of what the region has to offer. For example, Laura and Errol took me to the festival of San Luis. I ate delicious food, watched las carreras de cinta and played bingo for over two hours (it can get really intense). But even more importantly, I was able to talk with both locals and students on various programs. Laura and Errol have also taken me out to eat and shown me some of the other attractions in the area like the Selvatura reserve.


Another big change involved working on an oral history project with Professor Shannon Young and her students from Pace University. Because the Duke program includes week-long stints at the CIEE campus in San Luis and at La Ensenada by the coast, coordinating with them from my homestay would be challenging. Instead, I tried to find an independent project and chose to work alongside the students from Pace. The seven other students interviewed descendents from the original Quakers in the area, but Professor Young needed help interviewing some of the Spanish-speaking residents. I happily volunteered and was paired with Carlos Cespedes Mora.



As a man born in 1939 with spina bifida, he’s faced enormous challenges to get where he is today. His story is truly inspiring, and through our conversations he taught me about how the Monteverde area, and culture, has changed over the course of his life. Conducting an interview entirely in Spanish was totally new for me and there were times where I felt awkward or couldn’t completely understand him. However, he and his family were extremely gracious and welcoming to me and he appreciated the opportunity to tell his story.


These additions to the program: staying with a homestay and participating with the oral histories, has provided me with a wholly different, and richer experience. I’ve learned far more about the Monteverde area and its history, culture, and even gossip. I’ve been able to practice and improve my Spanish everyday. But most importantly, I’ve been able to forge connections with both locals and other student groups.



I love how close the 2017 group became over the course of our two months together, but that could be a crutch. And so I challenge every DukeEngage group to find, and take advantage of, opportunities to interact and experience the communities and cultures in which we have been placed. It has been challenging, uncomfortable, and different from anything I’ve experienced before, but it has also been extremely rewarding.