Studying abroad teaches language, cultural differences

Photo courtesy of Katie Tannahil

With one hand on the cable railing, and the other on the tree at the center of the small wooden platform, I peered out into the layers of green. There was a line of leafy-looking insects crawling up the nearest tree, and bird sounds filled the air. I felt the fresh sea breeze blowing up off the coast of Costa Rica. A guide called me to the other side of the platform and hooked the mess of harnesses I was wearing to a cable.

The next thing I knew, I was sliding through a clearing in the canopy of the trees. I was normally afraid of heights, but in this moment, everything was too beautiful for this Kansas girl to be afraid. I caught a glimpse of the open sea and felt the warm sunshine on my face. Then my feet found themselves on another platform. Three down, nine to go. But I could do this all day.

This was definitely one of the highlight moments of our trip. Over winter break, I spent 10 days in Costa Rica with K-State First’s CAT Community program. With me were 12 other freshman students, Laura Kanost, associate professor of Spanish, and our teaching assistant Carrie Goza, graduate student in agricultural economics and Hispanic studies.

Purpose of CAT, program
The Connecting Across Topics Community program brings small groups of freshmen together who are taking a few of the same classes. This helps students build relationships with other students and faculty with similar interests in their first semester to make the transition to college easier. But our CAT Community was the only one with a study abroad attached to the end of it. We all took Spanish 361 and Leadership 212, then met for an hour once a week in a connections class to get to know each other better and prepare for our trip. It may seeme like a lot to think that freshmen who have barely finished a semester of college could be successful in even a short study abroad experience, but our professors prepared us well, and I’m so glad I got a taste of studying abroad so early in my college experience.

“I always tell students that it will probably never be easier for them to get this kind of experience in their life,” Kanost said. “It will probably be more complicated later in life, so it’s a great opportunity to get to live in another place and learn about another way of life and use your language skills. I encourage everybody to go no matter what their major is.”

I agree with my professor. If you don’t want to spend a whole semester abroad, or are thinking about it, but aren’t sure if you could handle it, taking advantage of one of K-States alternative break, intersession, or professor-led trips abroad is an excellent option. Since our trip was professor-led, everything was arranged for us and we got to focus on just learning and enjoying our time. We lived with host families who spoke only Spanish, completed a service project, shopped in the open air market in our town, and got to do some tourist-type things like exploring the capital city, taking a zip-line, hanging out on the beach, and hiking a volcano. Even though it was only 10 days, by the end of the trip, we had all made leaps in our language skills, grown much closer as friends and gained self-assurance.

Good experience overall
Amanda Sloan, freshman in family studies and Spanish, said that the experience was a good preview to a longer study abroad trip.

“I don’t think I would have wanted to start with a whole semester,” Sloan said. “But it was good to go for 10 days and actually see what it’s like living with a host family and seeing that you can actually do it.”

Amanda Stultz, freshman in psychology, said that she has always wanted to study abroad, but was nervous about what the people would be like and how she would be treated as a foreigner. This fear was expelled after living with such a welcoming and friendly culture in Costa Rica, she said.

“That’s kind of opened my eyes that other people are probably like that too,” Stultz said. “They want you to feel welcome and enjoy your experience, so it’s really assuring for the future if you want to study abroad again.”

In addition to confidence for the future, the trip also provided significant growth in language skills, including opportunities to communicate with the host families, volunteer coordinators, show owners and bus drivers.

“I feel like I got more confident with my Spanish,” Brooke Cooper, freshman in secondary education, said. “Before, I didn’t really know how I would be able to speak to native speakers and I didn’t know if they’d be able to understand me fully, so it just gave me more confidence in my speaking ability.”

The main language challenge was probably with the host families.

“I was worried about comprehending everything, especially with my family,” said Stultz, whose roommate was Katie Keck, freshman in accounting and Spanish. “I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to communicate effectively with them, but they were really patient and helpful, and working together with Katie made it easier.”

Living in host families lent a more in-depth look at Costa Rican culture than living alone or in a hotel. One of the main differences was the shift of focus away from materialism.

“We’re so used to so many luxuries, and we’re stuck on the idea of having so much stuff,” Keck said. “It’s like you are your stuff.”

Keck said Costa Rican people were simply content with what they had or didn’t have, meaning many adjustments including using less water and electricity.

Stultz said this was just one of the aspects of living in a new culture.

“I was thinking, ‘When we go back, it’s gonna be nice,'” Stultz said. “But at the same time, I think that it really opened my mind to admiring and respecting and appreciating other cultures and how they live and learning how to adapt and appreciate it while you’re there.”

Amy Hein, freshman in Spanish, said that the cultural understanding went the other direction, too.

“I can relate to the students who are studying abroad here,” Hein said. “Looking different and talking different, people do notice, and I can totally empathize with that now and I know how that feels.”

‘Study Abroad Bug’
In the end, almost all of us agreed that we were much more likely to study abroad again after this experience. We had grown so much in just 10 days, and we had ‘caught the study abroad bug,’ as Abigail Lopez, a Johnson County Community College student, put it.

“I had been to another country before, but that’s different,” Sarah Watkins, freshman in elementary education, said. “Going on a tour is different than living with a family for 10 days. I wasn’t really sure I could do it, but I liked it. I also feel more confident in my ability, like I could actually go and study abroad somewhere and survive, like I could be good at it.”