When people ask me about the most rewarding part of my study abroad experience, many things come to mind. Language acquisition is definitely at the top of the list; being able to travel and live in another country for nearly 7 months is quite compelling as well. But the aspect that sticks out most to me? Being able to step out of my academic comfort zone and experience something completely unique to that region of the world. For me, as a Spanish and biology double major, Costa Rica was the easy choice when choosing programs due to the country’s rare mixture of the two academic disciplines. It not only offered an immersion experience in one of the purest Spanish dialects in the world, but it is also home to some of the most biologically diverse national parks in the world.
While studying at the University of Costa Rica, I enrolled in a class titled ‘Historia Natural de Costa Rica’ (for the non-Spanish speakers out there, that means Historia Natural of Costa Rica). Not only was I exposed to a new area of study within my biology degree that I had not previously had, but the class also expanded my Spanish vocabulary by offering a unique set of new terms. I was the only American in the class studying with biology majors at UCR. When students major in biology in the United States, it usually means they are pre-health in some regard; in Costa Rica, however, due to the heavy influence of biodiversity in the country, these students usually want to pursue a career as biologists so the major is much more centered around nature and ecology. With this interest of the students in mind, the class took four field trips during the semester: 2 were day trips, and 2 were over-night trips.
These trips allowed me to explore parts of the Costa Rican rain/cloud/dry forests that I would not have even known existed had I not taken the class. The trips each had a different field study that our class conducted during the excursion: the first was studying ferns on the forest floor in various environments, the second was a hummingbird field study (more on this below), the third was a trip to a farm practicing agroforestry (hyper-linked to explain that, if you’re curious), and the last was a study of river insects in the rain forest.
The hummingbird field study was probably the coolest experience of my academic career. We were located in the cloud forest at an over-night camp essentially, very popular for biologist to stay at. This area had hummingbird feeders set up for the four species of birds that we were going to study. We caught the birds by putting nets up in their flight path that they would fly into (don’t worry, no birds were harmed!). From there, we measured beak length, beak shape, wing shape, weight, etc. of each of the birds. We also used taped to collect pollen from their heads, necks and beaks. We used these pollen collections from the birds to compare with pollen collections from known flowers in the area under a microscope. This allowed us to see which species of birds were pollinating which species of flower, and using this information along with beak size/shape vs. flower size/shape, we could see if a co-evolutionary trend was being observed. This may sound really boring, but being able to handle these birds first hand in the cloud forest of Costa Rica was truly surreal.
This is just one example of how studying abroad gets students out of their traditional classroom environment to encounter something not only relevant to what they are studying, but something that they will keep for the rest of their lives. I will never forget my time in Costa Rica, especially being able to study biology in a habitat that does not exist in Kansas with species of birds only found in that part of the world.