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The Rich Coast (Costa Rica) - Andrew Puglia

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Posted: November 3, 2011

After a year of planning, preparing, and navigating through the study abroad process, I left for Costa Rica for three and half months to study with the School for Field Studies (SFS).

SFS is an environmentally-based field research program that has several sites around the world. I was based in Atenas, Costa Rica, a small rural town surrounded by coffee farms. My program focused on sustainability in tropical systems with classes on the economics of sustainability, natural resource management, tropical studies, Spanish, and a directed research project.

Our campus was a fifteen acre rainforest preserve with a large dormitory, professor’s houses, a kitchen and dining area, a common house, a small farm and a mango orchard. The living areas were surrounded by rainforest and a select few homes at the end of a road that lead into the town center. We were a group of thirty-five students from around the nation with a diversity of backgrounds and academic paths. This diversity made for intriguing conversation and insights.

PugliaCR1.pngOver the course of three months, the program was divided into three sections: classes, a comparative study trip to Nicaragua, and a directed research project. In the first section of classes, we spent about 60% of the time in the classroom at the center in Atenas. The other part of the time was spent traveling to different parts of the country experiencing some of the subjects we spent time studying. We visited plantations, farms, national parks, and energy sites where we received lectures in the field about the specific areas we were in and spent time discussing different aspects of sustainability. Some of the highlights of the field were visiting Braulio Carrillo National Park, the Dole Plantation, Monteverde Cloud Forest, Carrara National Park, Poas National Park, Arenal National Park, and an organic coffee farm. During our six day school weeks, two or three of those days were spent in the field. Each of our field trips reflected different aspects of our classes and integrated concepts from all of them. We also participated in community outreach activities such as teaching English, playing soccer, visiting orphanages, river clean-ups, and assorted construction projects. This first section of the program built a basis of vital knowledge and background to the environmental problems and solutions in Costa Rica and the world.

About halfway through our time on the rich coast, we went on a nine day study tour of Nicaragua. Our first few days were spent on Ometepe Island on Lake Nicaragua. This large island was made by two, still active volcanoes. Navigating the island posed much difficulty, as the area is still underdeveloped and roads were often treacherous. Despite the lack of reliable infrastructure, part of its charm was the remoteness and underdevelopment of the island. We visited farms, hiked a mountain, and studied invasive species during our stay. We then shifted to the town of Granada. This was one of the larger tourist towns in Nicaragua but was riddled by poverty and drugs. One of the great contradictions of Nicaragua, the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, is its great natural beauty but poverty stricken society. Our time spent in Nicaragua heavily focused on the problems of maintaining and conserving their natural environments while having to deal with a failing economy and impoverished society. We found that the environment was often sacrificed to amend the problems of society and the economy. Despite its problems, Nicaragua was one of the most insightful parts of the entire program and I experienced unforgettable adventures.

PugliaCR2.pngThe last section of the program was the directed research project. SFS has five-year research projects that are lead by each of the four professors. Each semester of students at the field station contribute to the work and progress of the projects alongside the direction of a professor. I worked with nine other students on a project with Dr. Sergio Molina focusing on the behaviors and attitudes towards the environmental issues of urbanization, waste management, and globalization. For a week we stayed in a rural town on the Pacific coast interviewing people about these different problems. We conducted interviews in Spanish and recorded our data. After the interview process, we analyzed and organized our data and each person wrote a research paper exploring a different concept of the project. We then gave a presentation on our findings. My paper was later published in the Penn State CED undergraduate research journal. To get a better understanding of the work I did during the directed research project, refer to the following link: http://agsci.psu.edu/ced-urj/2011 then click on The Relationship Between Education and Environmentalism: Support for Reorienting Environmental Education.

My experience with the School for Field Studies was one of the most valuable semesters of my academic career. The concepts that I learned at Penn State were expanded upon in Costa Rica and I had the opportunity to actually experience and apply the knowledge that I learned. I cannot express enough the gratitude I feel for having received such a great opportunity, and am forever grateful for those that made it possible.