Midterms were particularly hard this year for me. That’s not to say they weren’t par for the course at a national university. They mostly included in-class essays and short answers based on the readings, presentations, etc.
What’s changed is that none of this is in English anymore.
I’ve been frustrated a lot recently with my academic abilities in Costa Rica. In the States, I’m used to handling a full course load along with extracurricular activities and even some part-time work.
But in Costa Rica, my only activities outside of class are trips on weekends, which even then often include long stints of pouring over history and literature readings, usually playing catch-up. Weekdays, I go home and sit on the balcony and read. Or sit in the library doing research. All of these take longer because I’m working in a language in which I am not fluent.
At a rate of about 10 pages of reading an hour, it doesn’t leave much time on weekdays for anything other than an occasional Skype session home, a jaunt to the bars with friends or a stroll through the Internet to catch up on the news.
The remainder of my time is spent slowly, laboriously reading every class reading in the hopes of understanding class discussion.
It usually doesn’t work.
In class, I catch the general themes of each professor’s talk but rarely understand every single word. I understand even less of what my classmates say, as they often employ colloquialisms and accents to which I am not accustomed. I usually spend the two to four hours of lecture each week staring at the professor more or less clueless to the train of discussion.
Professors try to help. I can turn in my essays after being graded to improve either my grammar or the content of my essays. In class, the professors take my questions eagerly and even speak a little in English to emphasize key points.
I don’t like it.
I don’t like being the dumb kid in the class.
I don’t like being the gringo.
Costa Rica has been an amazing experience, and I’ve been on so many adventures I sometimes can’t remember them all.
But simultaneously experiencing one of the most challenging semesters of my academic career and being demoted to the dunce in the front row is not exactly thrilling.
To be fair, I chose to put myself in this situation. I chose IFSA-Butler’s Costa Rica progrm at la Universidad Nacional because I didn’t want to just go on an extended vacation and hate my classes for their simplicity. I didn’t want my study abroad experience to be a booze cruise. If I’m paying tuition, I want to get my money’s worth.
I also registered for harder classes, without other Americans, in the hope of simultaneously meeting ticos and engaging in academic material that was relevant and interesting. If there’s one thing I hate more than extra homework, it’s feeling like I’m wasting my time.
But I wasn’t prepared for the major shift of moving from the top of any given class in terms of grades, participation and academic insight to the bottom, desperately feeding off the crumbs of knowledge I may or may not find between lectures or readings.
The fear of wasting my semester academically may have caused me to do just that in terms of the academic content I’ll bring back to the states.
Nevertheless, at the risk of sounding absolutely cliché, I’ve learned more about myself here than I did in three years at an American University.
I enjoy being in the know.
I don’t enjoy being clueless.
I can handle uncertainty, but only to a certain degree, and most certainly not when my GPA is on the line.
My Spanish is good and is improving, but will likely never reach fluency without some more serious effort and years, not months, of immersion.
Those realizations help put my challenges in perspective. I’m not completely failing all of my classes, and I don’t have to be a straight-A student in order to graduate in May as planned.
Maybe my tuition isn’t being wasted after all.
Here’s to hoping finals go better than midterms.