Kara Berggren is a University of Nevada, Reno student majoring in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and minoring in Spanish. We talked to Kara about her experience studying abroad in Puntarenas, Costa Rica where she was able to participate in an internship in wildlife ecology and conservation.
Why did you choose to study abroad in Puntarenas?
I have lived near the mountains my whole life, and I love spending my free time hiking and camping. However, I thought it would be great to experience beach life for a semester, so I chose Puntarenas as my study abroad program. I was also very excited to take the Tropical Marine Biology class offered in Puntarenas so that I could learn more about ocean wildlife.
Where did you intern and can you explain a little bit about what the company/organization did?
I interned in Pitahaya, a very small and rural farming town. The people in this community grow sugar cane as their main source of revenue. Unfortunately, farming sugar cane does not bring much money into the community. The season for growing sugar cane does not last all year long, so many men are left without a job for months out of the year. These men have to leave home to search for other work. Some of the local women in Pitahaya have decided to do something about their economic disadvantage. Many places in Costa Rica are thriving off of revenue brought in through ecotourism, thus the women in Pitahaya want to create their own ecotourism business.
The plan for this business will be to give a tour that includes visiting the sugar cane farms, eating an authentic Costa Rican lunch, enjoying an ice cream made from the pitahaya fruit, and visiting the local mangrove forest. One of the current problems that is prohibiting the opening of such tours is that the local mangrove forests need to be reforested. Over the years, sugar cane farmers have cut down mangrove trees in order to plant more crops. One woman who has lived her whole life in Pitahaya has taken it upon herself to learn how to restore her local mangrove forest.
What was your role at your internship?
One of my roles in the internship was to assist the Pitahaya women with their mangrove restoration project. In order to collect mangrove seeds, we would take a boat along the waterways within the mangrove forest and pick seeds right off of the existing mangrove trees. We then planted these seeds in a nursery garden. When the shoots had grown to about a foot in height, we transplanted them to areas in the forest that needed more trees.
The second role of my internship was to teach a class on female self-esteem, leadership, and empowerment. The women in Pitahaya had asked for such a class because, unfortunately, women in Latin America, especially in poor towns, often work in traditional gender roles and are not given much of a choice to do anything else. Because of a male-dominated culture, the women may feel that they have little to no voice in their homes, communities, and country. I spent many hours learning about various programs around the world that support women in developing countries. What I discovered was that the best way to empower women is to educate them. When women become educated, they are more able and more likely to start their own business to create a source of revenue for themselves and their children. When women are educated, they can better contribute to the local economy which then helps everyone in the community. The women in Pitahaya already have a high school education which is very important. The goal of my class was to provide a safe space for the women to talk, create, and express themselves in the hopes that by learning more about themselves and sharing more about themselves, they may increase their self-esteem and leadership skills.
Why did you want to get involved in an internship during your study abroad?
During my study abroad, I wanted to get involved with the local community, and I wanted to gain valuable work experience with tropical wildlife that is so uniquely different from the wildlife that I know from home. I figured that an internship would be a great way to do both.
How did this internship impact your study abroad experience?
This internship definitely added to my study abroad experience in a positive way. It gave me an opportunity to see a different side of Costa Rica that I otherwise would not have come to know. I was also able to meet some amazing women who are working to improve their lives and the lives of other women in their community.
Can you talk about how this internship will help further your career plans/academic goals?
This internship was related to my area of study and future career plans. I am very interested in wildlife conservation, sustainable and regenerative agriculture, and climate change. This internship was able to encompass all of these aspects in some way. Mangrove forests are able to sequester huge amounts of CO2, they are home to a variety of plants and animals, and they reduce flooding and hurricane damage for coastal towns. Thus, mangrove restoration is an important step to combating climate change as well as biodiversity loss. Mangrove forests are often cut down so the land can be used for farming. However, in the town of Pitahaya, I got to see how mangrove restoration could help a community. This internship allowed me to see that wildlife conservation, agriculture, and community development are connected, and it’s possible to find solutions where both wildlife and people can benefit.
What is a stand-out moment from your study abroad in general?
A stand-out moment from my study abroad, or a collection of stand out moments, rather, was spending time with my host family. I was fortunate to be placed with a sweet and loving family that welcomed me into their home. They took me on a few small trips to Guanacaste and San Jose. I had an amazing time getting to know this family, and all our conversations definitely improved my Spanish speaking!
Why would you recommend USAC and the Puntarenas program to another student?
I would definitely recommend USAC to other students. In Puntarenas, USAC provided a very nice school full of amenities like a swimming pool, a gym, and an air-conditioned lounge. USAC took us on several great weekend trips and an amazing weeklong trip to Panamá. I was impressed with the planning and organization of these trips. Studying abroad is an amazing way to travel and explore the world, and it’s a great opportunity for personal growth.
For more resources and stories on having a sustainable study abroad experience, check out our website on sustainable study abroad.