Costa Rica Alternative Spring Break Trip 2012

By Monica Cason 14

For most college students, spring break is thought to be the perfect opportunity to relax and enjoy a fruity drink on an exotic beach.

While participants of the Center for Civic Engagement (CCE)’s alternative spring break program did enjoy a tropical location during their week off, the main focus was not on personal rejuvenation. On March 10, 2012, a group of nine CMC students joined Staff Leaders Amy Bibbens (Director of CCE) and Nicole Sheldon-Desjardins (Assistant Director of Off-Campus Study) as well as Student Leaders Monica Cason ’14 and Andrew Bergman ’14 for a week of volunteer service with Tropical Adventures in Education in the rural community of Villa Mastatal, Costa Rica.

Tropical Adventures in Education is a Seattle-based organization dedicated to providing educational travel programs focused on firsthand research and experience in tropical biodiversity. By incorporating an emphasis on community service as requested by the CCE, Tropical Adventures outlined a week-long itinerary to integrate students into the Villa Mastatal community through environmental education, impactful service projects, and immersion in the typical Costa Rican lifestyle.

Costa Rica was the ideal location to discover more about ecology, the environment, and sustainable living practices as the government and its people take immense pride in preserving the wonders of this spectacular tropical paradise. Situated near one of the country’s many national parks and within a rural farming community, students agree that life in Villa Mastatal was eye-opening. Alex Bentley ’14 noted what an “incredible cultural and learning experience” it was, and Alice Chang ’15 commented that she “learned a lot about permaculture and the benefits of local food production in Mastatal.”

Program participants gained in-depth knowledge about life in this 150-person village by visiting the local sustainable, organic farms that provide food for the community and drive its small economy. This understanding was further enhanced by spending two nights with a host family, encouraging CMCers to step outside their comfort zone and engage directly with the individuals their work was benefiting. Bentley was “especially impressed” by the homestays, believing they “gave us a better understanding and appreciation for the different Costa Rican traditions and ways of life.” When not with a host family, the entire group stayed together at the home of Javier and Raquel, who own their own generations-old sustainable farm. In an effort to reduce energy consumption and experience sustainable living, students lived in open-air dorms and went the entire week without hot water or flushing toilets (“you get used to the compost toilets after a while” admits one participant). Despite varying degrees of Spanish proficiency, the program participants worked cohesively to piece together conversations which enabled them to interact with community members.
This relationship with individuals in Villa Mastatal made the work performed there especially meaningful. By the end of the trip, students had successfully performed trail renovation in the national park, painted an elementary school building, and partially constructed a greenhouse for the school. For Shelby Barthold ’14, “the work we did was one of the most satisfying experiences of my life. It felt amazing being able to help people who deserve so much.” Andrew Bergman ’14 agreed, strongly believing that “we made a lasting impact.”
Based on the success of alternative spring break 2012, will the CCE sponsor a similar trip next year? According to Director Amy Bibbens, the answer is yes. “Our Costa Rica trip was an amazing experience for the students, and we plan to continue offering alternative spring break trips through the CCE in the future.” Considering the outstanding success of this pilot program in its first year, subsequent trips are bound to be a hit with students seeking to build relationships with fellow CMCers, gain insight into new cultures, and most importantly, to serve the worldwide community.