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!