Alumni Q&A: Last Minute Decision, Lifetime of Memories and Friends


Q&A with Danielle Watson – San Ramón, Costa Rica Alumna.

1. Why did you choose the program that you did?

The decision to study abroad was rather last-minute. I thought it wasn’t possible for me to go anywhere because of my major, and by the time I realized I could, there was only one semester left where it would fit into my graduation plan. As a result, I had very limited savings for such an adventure. I knew I wanted to be in a Spanish speaking country, and at the time Costa Rica was the least expensive. Eventually I chose the town of San Ramón for it’s healthcare and biology classes.

2. If or when you study abroad again, where would you like to go? Why?

I want to say San Ramon, because I fell in love with the town and it’s people! I do plan to live there again eventually. However, if I were to study abroad again in another country, I think I would choose Spain. The way of speaking Spanish there is so different, and it would be nice to see Europe. Or I could be completely unpractical and pick Italy just because I want to see Pompei and have an excuse to eat gelato three times a day.

3. What are some of your favorite highlights from your time abroad?

Absolutely my home stay. If you have the opportunity to live with a family, take it and immerse yourself with their daily activities. Cook and go grocery shopping with your mom, watch the news with your dad, play fútbol and video games with your brother. It is the best way be immersed, rather than a visitor. It will also help you learn the language faster, as you have no choice but to speak it! My family and I became close. It’s been almost a year since I left and we still speak several times a week.

Another highlight was when I realized how awesome my survival skills were. My friends and I decided to hike into a national park for a long-weekend trip. I learned how far 18 kilometers with no shade is, I learned the importance of packing enough water for your four day trip, and I learned how beautiful everything is when you think you’re dying. It was on this trip, between being attacked by lizards and raccoons while searching for water, that I dealt with some issues in my life that I had been avoiding. Everyone deserves a wake-up call like that! My closest friends from the USAC program ended up being those who experienced that with me. It was so ugly and so beautiful, and it is a fantastic story to share at boring dinner parties.

Of course, I have to mention my first trip with my non-USAC friends. I went to see Iron Man in 3D, meaning we needed to go to the capital. It was a wonderful experience to feel like a friend rather than a foreigner. Make as many local friends as you can. Not only will they take you places you can’t get on foot or by bus and show you all of your town’s secrets, but their mom’s will cook delicious new foods for you. And I cannot think of anything better than food. Having confirmation that my Spanish skills were improving enough to have friends was a great confidence booster as well.

4. In your experience, what are the major benefits of studying abroad?

There is, of course, the obvious benefit of learning a new language. However, I have spoken with several people who are not interested in studying abroad because they would want to go to an English speaking country, and cannot see the benefit in that. To those people; still go! You may be surprised to learn that the way we communicate using English in the US is not the same way the language is spoken worldwide.

However, the greatest benefit of studying abroad is to learn a new culture and appreciate a different way of looking at the world. Based on my humble observations, we are raised in the United States to believe our country is the greatest and that our way of thinking is the best. This can sometimes translate into our personal lives. There has been nothing more rewarding than having everything I believed in challenged. In some areas, it has made me let go of long held beliefs, and in others it has caused my to more firmly accept my understanding of various personal truths. You will grow immensely as a person when you are able to objectively examine various parts of your life. Studying abroad and experiencing another culture is an excellent opportunity to engage in that.

5. What were some of the special/unique things you were able to do or see?

I was able to engage in an internship through the local hospital. This involved home visits to rural communities and experience with ulcer and wound care. I also was able to learn some medical terms in Spanish, which continues to be a great aid in my professional life.

Through my health classes, I was able to visit various healthcare settings and learn about the universal healthcare system used in Costa Rica. With my culture class, I was able to visit a farm, meet women who helped their families survive by making candy, and visit various museums in San Jose. And in basic Spanish, we were always sent into town to practice our language skills by asking how much various items cost and ordering food at local restaurants. Those are things you cannot experience in the United States!

The personal, out of classroom experiences tended to be the most unique. I received my PADI scuba diving certification from a Spaniard, during which our boat sank. I’ve never laughed so hard. I learned how to dance salsa, cumbia, merenge, and bachata. I went camping at a national monument where an archaeological excavation was taking place. I hitch-hiked in the back of a milk truck. And we can’t forget that time I jumped off of a fifty-foot waterfall. That was pretty unique and special. Of course, these are some of the crazier adventures. There were also plenty of days spent walking around town eating frozen bananas with my friends, sitting in the park with my elderly friend who taught me Costa Rican slang, and discussing life at the kitchen table with my host mom. While those may not be the most special or unique, they were the most beautiful.

6. What was a funny cultural experience?

I knew about eleven words in Spanish when I initially arrived in Costa Rica, six of which other USAC student taught me on the bus ride from the airport to our new town. I decided I would smile and say “Sí!” to everything (because there is no foreseeable flaw in that plan). Using this method, I ended up at a funeral with my host family on my second day in town. Funerals last for eleven days, in which you visit the house of the dead and pray for two hours every evening. My first words in Spanish were the Catholic “Hail Mary” prayer, which became my new response to everything. I’m pretty sure the entire extended family thought that I was crazy, but it was so special to be able to experience something so culturally different.

7. What did you learn about yourself?

I learned that I am adaptable, intelligent, and able to do hard things. I learned that I am competent and valuable. Those are pretty big things to learn about yourself! I also learned that I really like hugs.

8. How did studying abroad change you?

Externally, I changed my major and career goals. I cut a foot of my hair off, just because I could. I also gained some weight because the food was so delicious, and those frozen bananas are only 20 cents each. Internally, I gained confidence in myself. I became more flexible and less concerned about the future. I grew greatly in my spiritual life. Most importantly, I learned to do things because I wanted to, not because I am “supposed to” or to fulfill other people’s expectations of me.

9. What’s one thing you would have done differently?

I would have stayed longer. I know, everyone probably says that, but it’s true. This is a ONCE IN A LIFETIME opportunity! Make it last as long as possible, and stay as long as you can! You will only regret the things that you didn’t do. Also, I would have learned a little Spanish before I went to ease the learning process.

10. Now that you’re home, how has study abroad impacted your life?

I am now able to have friends who speak limited or no English, and it is great! My job is easier because I can communicate with an entire subset of customers and coworkers who I could barely say hello to before. The best “I speak Spanish!” moment for me was when a woman told me my licence plate had fallen off of my car as we were at a stop light. Think how far I would have driven had I not been able to understand her!

I have become more involved on campus by volunteering with USAC for various promotional events and with the office of international students as a language partner.

Most importantly, it has changed how I view people. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it used to be frustrating for me when people could not successfully communicate in English. Now I am more patient, and understand how challenging it is to speak in a foreign language. I’m just thankful they’re trying at all! Also, I sometimes forget when I am greeting my friends or meeting new people that we don’t hug and kiss here. So I violate a lot of people’s personal space. Which, for me, is highly entertaining.

11. How many years did it/will it take you to graduate?

Four and a half. That includes transferring to the University of Nevada, changing my major, and studying abroad. So it’s not too bad when you account for all of those events that people claim set your graduation date back.

12. What are you doing now?

I’m working full time and going to school. As a waitress, I use my new language skills on a daily basis, and they have improved immensely since returning to the US. I changed my major from nursing to community health sciences, which is essentially public health. Hopefully I’ll be using my degree and Spanish language skills to aid in community health education, specifically in low income areas, but we’ll see what happens after graduation.

13. What, in your opinion, are the biggest myths students believe about study abroad?

That they don’t have the time or money for it. The reality is, you must make the time, even if you feel that you can’t. There are summer and winter options if you’re really worried, but be prepared to fall in love and stay a full semester anyways. Again with the “once-in-a-lifetime, irreplaceable experience” thing. If you don’t make the time now, during your undergraduate years, there is a big chance you will not be able to make this decision in the future. With the money, calculate your total cost for a semester abroad (spending money and all) and compare it to a semester in the US. For some people, their US tuition alone is more expensive than a semester abroad. You’d be surprised how affordable it truly is when you compare it that way.

14. What advice would you tell students trying to decide whether or not to study abroad?

If you are considering it, you absolutely have to go. You really don’t have a choice anymore! Which may sound silly, but if this is something you have considered, you will regret not doing it. Too many people toy with the idea and choose not to go, and in the end they regret it. This experience will challenge you in areas that you didn’t realize you needed to grow in; it will change how you look at the world and how you communicate with people. I’m not sure that an individual can experience those challenges so rapidly and forcefully if they are in the comfort of their own country.

Read more Alumni Interviews from around the world.

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