Student Blogs & Vlogs | College Study Abroad Programs, IFSA-Butler

Why IFSA-Butler’s orientation process works

Time August 5th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

It seems completely counterintuitive to send study abroad students to a completely different place for their first week of orientation, only to shuttle them off to a completely new town with completely new family.

It’s paramount to doubling the culture shock, antithetical to IFSA’s promise of “More culture. Less shock.”

But, by George, it works. Transition to university has been easier than I could have imagined, no small thanks to my time in Liberia.

Read More »


Orientation Week 1: Liberia

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

The first week of orientation took place in Liberia.  We had Spanish class each morning from 8:00 to 12:00, which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because we had luxuriously catered coffee/juice-and-pastry break in the middle, and that lasted about half an hour.  I was pretty disappointed by the class itself, but the argument could be made that the program was simply using a different pedagogical strategy than I was expecting.  I really wanted a blistering review of all of Spanish grammar, with drills coming hard and fast nonstop for four hours, and maybe some hefty vocabulary lists to memorize each night.  I wanted a linguistic boot camp that would give me everything I needed to go charging into battle.  Instead, it was slower-paced with longer-term goals.  The first two days were spent entirely on assessment tests and exercises.  The rest of the time featured some basic grammar review (present tense, ser vs. estar, por vs. para…) but focused mainly on conversation.  I guess the idea was just to oil us up, to make us feel more comfortable speaking the language even if we weren’t actually speaking it any better.  Oh well.

I didn’t realize that we would spend this first week with a temporary host family in Liberia, so my knees got a little wobbly when they told us we would be going home with them.  But I had to put on a good face once I met them, and before long I fooled myself, too.  It helped that I understood a surprising amount of what they were saying.  My stay ended up being an entirely pleasant one, largely because the family didn’t worry themselves too much about me.  From stories I had heard of other people’s host family experiences, I had two main fears: 1) having to listen to interminably long one-sided conversations, and 2) being forced to eat more than I wanted to avoid insulting my host mom.  Neither was a problem.  I spent the entire first evening with my Liberian host family, but after that I hardly saw them.  I got to come and go when I pleased, and when I was hungry my host mom or host sister would simply dish out moderate portions from some Tupperwares, stick it in the microwave, and leave me to eat alone.  It was exactly the sort of low-key introduction to host family living that I needed.

Of course getting to know my peers was fun.  Though there are only 13 of us in the IFSA group, we make full use of the geographic and academic diversity our sprawling homeland allows.  There was a certain anthropological delight to be had in watching us form a social community ex nihilo.  At least for me, the biggest obstacle to integration was the language barrier, or rather, the languages barrier.  To speak English would betray our common mission of learning Spanish, to speak Spanish would betray the sense of solidarity in the face of linguistic and cultural challenges coming from all directions.  I worried so much about choosing one language over another that sometimes I didn’t speak at all (readers who know me are just going to have to take my word for it).

But best of all, IFSA arranged for us to have “amigos Ticos,” a group of four university students that were integrated into some of our activities.  I would never have imagined that such an artificial social arrangement would yield such amazing results.  The credit, of course, goes to the Ticos, who were incredibly nice.  They even went out with us in the evenings.  How they had the patience to put up with our strong accents and butchered conjugations I don’t know, but we learned more about the language and culture with them at the bars than we did in the classroom.  (Also, it’s pretty awesome to casually go to bars.  I don’t drink, so it’s not worth trying to sneak into a bar in the States, but since the drinking age is 18 here, bars make for fun places to meet and talk over grapefruit soda.)  At the end of the week, goodbyes were sad and sweet.

On our last day in Liberia, we got to leave the city and go for a short jaunt through Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja.  Binoculars hanging from my neck and notebook in hand, I had reached nirvana.  (Believe me, there will be plenty of sylvan romanticism later, so I’ll spare you the details now.)


Ode to Liberia, Revised

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

Prof. Rodolfo Salazar Solórzano, in an ode to Liberia:

Mi ciudad es blanca,                              [My city is white,

sencilla y risueña,                                  simple and smiling,

con olor a monte                                    with the smell of mountains

con olor a monte                                    with the smell of mountains

y a flor de reseda.                                  and of mignonette flower.


The Rough Guide to Costa Rica (September 2011):

“Known colloquially as the ‘Ciudad Blanca’ (white city) due to its whitewashed houses, Liberia is the only town in Costa Rica that seems truly colonial in style and character…  Liberia’s wide, clean streets are used more by cyclists and horseriders than motorists.”


Cameron Meyer Shorb, in a blog post about Liberia (2013):

Liberia is neither white nor clean.  It smells neither of mountains nor mignonettes, and I didn’t see a single horserider in the city.

Though a few whitewashed houses remain, the majority boast the brightest and sweetest colors of the tropics.  The gutters are littered with trash and rotting mangoes, giving the city a sickly sweet smell quite unlike that mountains or flowers.  The traces of Spanish colonialism meekly cede center stage to the American empire, with McDonald’s and Burger King signs looming high above the crossroads at the entrance to town.  The streets are not much wider than necessary for a car or two to race by its parked peers, much to the terror of pedestrians.

I loved Liberia.  It surged with the life and death that come so easily in these restless latitudes.  It seemed as proud of its progress as it was of its history.  The central church is a magnificent modern cement cathedral, as ugly as it is beautiful, asserting its independence defiantly and celebrating its contentedness confidently.


The First Foray

Time July 25th, 2013 in College Study Abroad | No Comments by

I arranged to arrive midday on Friday, giving me more than 48 hours alone before I had to meet up with the group Sunday night, when the group flight was getting in.  The idea was to make the transition slower, because I could spend the first few days getting to know Liberia and getting my Spanish tongue in shape.  I learned to like traveling alone by doing so for a month in Spain last winter.  I love it because I don’t have to worry about anything: anything can go wrong and the only one it’s going affect is me.  Okay, so maybe that sounds like something to worry about, but most of the time it isn’t, because most of stress of traveling (within the comforts of civilization, that is) does not come from things that could do any lasting physical harm.  It’s mostly about missing buses and getting lost and sounding stupid and being hungry and tired.  But with no one to empathize with and no one to complain to, those things cannot manifest themselves as anything other than temporary variations from preferred outcomes.

And then’s there’s the fact that when you’re traveling alone, you can do what you want.  For example, I wanted to walk eight miles to Liberia from the airport.  I was starving for Costa Rica and I was going to devour the landscape step by step.

I filled my Camelback with extra water in the airport bathroom.  I wasn’t supposed to drink it, but I new I should take it just in case.  It was hot out, and belated diarrhea would be better than immediate heatstroke.

Within the first twenty minutes I saw [what I believed to be] a boat-tailed grackle, a great kiskadee, an ani, and a brilliant turquoise, orange, and green bird that may have been a motmot or a flycatcher. I’d have to look them up later.  [I did: 1) Actually a great-tailed grackle, Quiscalus mexicana.  2) I can’t be confident in that identification; there are many look-alikes. 3) Groove-billed ani, Crotophaga sucirostris. 4) Turquise-browed motmot, Eumomota superciliosa.]

Trees. Ceibas? Huh, they must be related to locust trees. Legumbraceae, then. Nitrogen-fixers. Good. But didn’t Dan say phosphorous tends to be the limiting nutrient in tropical areas? Then why the energy investment in nitrogen fixation? Maybe there’s not enough rainfall in this area for phosphorous to be the limiting nutrient.

Brahmin cattle, dewlaps and humpfat and all. We must be in the tropics!

I tried to balance my fascination with the wonders of the roadside with a healthy awareness of the possibility of basking snakes, poisonous plants, the arrival of the thunderstorm that I could see on the horizon, heat stroke, and the worsening of the strain that had already started in my right hip.


A guy pulled over:

“Where are you going?”


“Do you want a ride?”

I thought about it.


I added as I climbed in his truck: “Pero sólo si puedo practicar mi español.”

We had a great chat.


My room in the hostel (Hotel Guanacaste) was luxuriously tiny. A little longer than the bed in each direction, yet still equipped with a desk, a toilet, a sink, and a shower with soap. The Spanish hostels never had soap.

I crashed, but eventually revived myself and set to exploring.  I found the hotel where I was to meet the group (a few blocks away as the native walks, a mile or two as I did). I looked in. Total pansy-fest. Tablecloths and everything. Thank goodness I put myself up somewhere proper.

* * *

I spent the next few days exploring Liberia.  I explored the streets on my half-hour, half-assed morning runs, going in a different direction each day.  I explored the outskirts on daytime walks to the trash-strewn but bird-rich Río Liberia, where I saw an 18-inch crocodile.  A man catching tiny fish told me I shouldn’t hang out there alone because there were drug addicts that would slit my throat to steal my watch. I explored the food at tiny restaurants (each was just a bar looking into an open kitchen) in the central market and the bus station.  And I explored the language over two multi-hour conversations with a nice old man, Don Bruno.  I met him when he laughed at me for doubling back after I realized I was going in the wrong direction.  He invited me into the house he was preparing to rent, where we sat on the two plastic chairs that were the only furnishing and drank small plastic cups of unnervingly good coffee.  He did most of the talking, which was fine by me.  It helped that he was an atheist and a friend of the gays.  We differed on our reasoning for the latter, but my attempt to explain the social construction of gender in Spanish was unsuccessful.  (I stowed the subject away to use as a benchmark on my way to fluency.)

It was late in the afternoon on Sunday when the fisherman told me the river wasn’t safe, so I went back to Don Bruno’s house, picked up the luggage I had stowed there, and thanked him again.  It was time at last to surrender my liberty.  I was turning myself in.