Work Experience Abroad: Volunteering in Costa Rica

Alexandra Cintrón JiménezDuring my undergraduate studies, I decided to broaden my horizons by volunteering in Costa Rica. I came upon a scholarship for students in the College of Education at the Universidad de Puerto Rico who wanted to pursue a teaching experience abroad. As soon as I saw this, I decided to apply and start researching for possible opportunities. In the course of my research, I found We Are Bamboo and applied for their teaching volunteering program.

We Are Bamboo had many options for positions in Asia, but I decided to go to a place where I was comfortable with the language. At that time, I barely had international experiences abroad, let alone by myself. I decided to go somewhere close to home, which is why I thought volunteering in Costa Rica would be a good idea. After applying for the volunteer program, I was lucky enough to be awarded the scholarship from my college. I felt very excited about this opportunity and could barely wait to go. 

Arriving in Costa Rica

Even though I applied through We Are Bamboo, the company was affiliated with Maximo Nivel, who were in charge of the program in Costa Rica. I will be honest with you. As I was traveling alone, I was nervous because the communication from the program was vague. They notified me that once in the airport, I needed to look out for a yellow flag held out by the member of staff picking me up. They did not send me information about my host family beforehand. I found out about where I would be staying when I met the staff at the airport. 

Nevertheless, once there everything went smoothly. There were other volunteers who were there for varying projects such as healthcare and sea-turtle conservation. Once all the volunteers arrived, we drove to the main office for check-in and then I met my host family. I stayed with my host mom Cindy, her partner, and kids. They were very friendly and when they found out I spoke Spanish, they felt thrilled. There, I met another volunteer from New Zealand. She only spoke English, so even though she had only one week left, I helped them understand each other better. Below is a picture of me with my host family; their daughter was with her grandparents when we took the picture.

Alexandra with her host family while volunteering in Costa Rica

Teaching

On the first day, I had a training session and found my placement. I met Alice from Alaska who was fluent in Spanish, which I felt very impressed by. We both were assigned the same placement, Fundación la Mujer. After we were assigned, a guide from Maximo Nivel showed us around to familiarize us with the route we needed to take to get there. Our assignment was teaching adults in San José, the capital of Costa Rica. It was an adjustment for me since all of my schooling so far had been at the K-12 level, but I really enjoyed it. The smaller group meant that we could provide a topic they felt most interested in. 

Alexandra teaching while volunteering in Costa Rica

Living as a Costa Rican and Gastronomy

One of my favorite things about this experience was that I lived like a Costa Rican. I took the bus and walked around to get where I wanted to go. Spending time with people gave me first-hand insights into the culture. The program included breakfast and dinner, so I sampled typical homemade food from Costa Rica. 

For breakfast, I tried gallo pinto, a main course that can include rice, beans, eggs, toast, and fruit. As a Puerto Rican, eating rice and beans for breakfast was a new experience. We usually ended our lessons by 2:00 PM and then went for lunch at restaurants nearby. We’d sit and eat while working on our lesson plan for the next day. For lunch or dinner, Costa Ricans love tucking into casado, which includes rice, beans, sweet plantains, salad, and a choice of meat. After finishing my “work” day, I toured the city. I visited museums such as Museo Nacional de Costa Rica and Museo de Arte Costarricense.

The National Museum of Costa Rica, which Alexandra visited in Costa Rica

I took this photo at the National Museum of Costa Rica.

Exploring Costa Rica

During the weekends, I went on a couple of tours. I visited Volcán Arenal, La Paz waterfall, and the hot springs in La Fortuna. Spending my birthday there was so much fun. Although I am not a coffee lover, I still had to try it since I was in Costa Rica. So I visited Heredia for a coffee tour. During this, I tasted different types of coffee beans such as light roast, poás, and tres ríos. They explained the whole process the beans go through while showing me the plantation. 

These pictures show the volcano and coffee tour. The basket and hat is what they use to pick up beans. 

Saying Goodbye

I wish my volunteer program had been longer. The reason being that I believe I could have made a better impact as a volunteer if I had stayed more than two weeks. Volunteering abroad is an experience anyone can have, especially because you can choose the time commitment and it allows exploring another country from a different perspective other than a tourist. You can connect better with the culture and its people. Now that I am writing this, I wished I kept in touch with people I met while I was there. I am longing to go back. There are many places I still want to explore in Costa Rica. 

¡Pura Vida!

ESL Certifications: Where to Begin

by Caroline Hazelton

The world of English as a Second/Foreign Language teachers is a delightful one, whether we are teaching it where it’s the dominant language to non-native speakers (English as a Second Language) or in another part of the world where it is a non-native language (English as a Foreign Language). There are literally so many situations you can find yourself in if you love other cultures and languages. You can:

  • build an American dream in an immigrant child or adult learning ESL
  • teach brilliant international students in English for Academic Purposes programs
  • teach English online in dozens of countries from your own office
  • go abroad… and have a “Dream Abroad!” 

However, every dream has a road, and every road has a starting point. How do you get to all of these places above? After all, you’re going to need some formal training to explain such cases like “I have eaten,” which means “I previously ate, my previous eating still affects me now, and will continue to affect me into the future” kind of grammatical teaching and understanding. 

Where to Begin with ESL Certifications

English as a Foreign Language ESL Certifications

Here are a few steps to gaining ESL/EFL credentials in specific situations.

  1. Earn a Bachelor’s or higher. This is true in nearly every English teaching case. I suggest majoring in ESL Education or in a related field. 
  2. Gain cross-cultural experiences as a volunteer, either abroad or both.
  3. (Recommended but not required) Study a second language. 

Foreign Language teachersSteps 1-3 are your “launch pad.” Once you’ve done these things, you have three other options to figure out where you wish to be:

Option A: Earn your ESOL certificate or endorsement to teach English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) in public K-12 schools.

Option B: The universally-accepted TEFL certificate lets you teach abroad or in many online English teaching platforms. In my case at EF, my degree credentials substituted this requirement.

Option C: If you wish to teach ESL in a university or in a college, a Master’s is usually necessary. Again, you can either major in ESL Education or a different field such as linguistics, English, Education, etc. Note that teaching English as a Second Language or English for Academic Purposes is usually for non-credit courses. If you wish to train future English as a Second Language teachers, a PhD in one of the fields mentioned above might be necessary.

My ESL Journey

I want to end this on a personal note, as I realize this article has been on the technical side thus far. Teaching English as a Second AND Foreign Language in my case has been a delightful experience, but figuring out how to get where I wanted to go was overwhelming in my early days of undergrad.

I come from a tiny community in the rural southern United States. There were no opportunities in my hometown that would prepare me to be an ESL teacher. Instead, I had to leave. I had to volunteer in Texas, travel overseas multiple times, and volunteer with international students at my university. This was all in addition to learning Spanish and getting both degrees before I was even truly qualified to teach ESL. I’ve held several positions in different cities and states as my personal life changes. While this field requires a unique set of skills, it also allows flexibility. 

ESL Certifications

Start Seeking Opportunities with ESL Certifications

This guide is coming from someone who knew in the very beginning of undergrad that I wanted to teach both Spanish and ESL. For some of you, you may not have even considered ESL/EFL until recently. Oftentimes, there are many interests, goals, and dreams that might not happen the way we imagine. In other cases, we don’t realize a passion that we have for a cause until later in life. If that sounds like you, figure out the skills and education that you already have and start seeking opportunities to add to your repertoire. For example, a former colleague wanted to teach English as a Foreign Language overseas for the Peace Corps. Despite her education, she was rejected for lack of ESL experience. She made up for this volunteering at one of the last schools I taught at, and I hope she’s gotten where she wanted to go.

Teaching English as a Second Language is both satisfying on the intellectual and humanitarian level, not to mention, quite fun! I hope to see many of our Dreams Abroad readers join me in obtaining their ESL certifications!

Where to Begin with ESL Certifications