2017 News Stories

College of Education students put teaching skills to the test in Costa Rica

by Abby Rinaldi

USF Students take a group photo in front of a volcano in Costa Rica

College of Education students traveled to San Jose, Costa Rica this summer to experience the field of education on a global level. Photo provided by Sara Palczynski.

At the Colegio Monterrey private school in Costa Rica, USF English education student Sara Palczynski plays volleyball against a team of seniors and a team of seventh-graders.

Meanwhile, English Education and Linguistics major Ennis Cruz Gonzalez observes a French classroom at the same school.

These are some of the scenes the two USF seniors recounted during their two-week long stay in San José, Costa Rica this summer as part of a College of Education study abroad program. The trip gives USF students the opportunity to step into the classroom and the Costa Rican community in order to gain a better understanding of the country's culture and education system.

"It's not just a matter of learning about different cultures, but for us specifically, because we're teachers, ... we can also learn more about different school systems and how we can incorporate this into our future classrooms or into our future lives as teachers," Gonzalez said.

Palczynski and Gonzalez spent their two weeks in Costa Rica on hiking trips through rainforests, going to museums, exploring markets, making chocolate on a cacao tour, visiting a man who makes Costa Rican masks of mud and paper and learning about the Costa Rican education system through their trips to public and private schools in San José.

The program was created three years ago to provide students at USF the opportunity to experience a teaching abroad program that fits into their tightly packed course schedules, said College of Education professor Joan Kaywell, PhD, who teaches a World Literature for Teachers course that English Education majors take prior to their departure.

"We have more than doubled the number of students who take advantage of this study abroad experience," Kaywell said. "We started with 10 students three years ago and took 22 students this summer."

USF Education Abroad offers a variety of study abroad opportunities for students and faculty in more than 25 countries. Dr. Roger Brindley, USF System Vice President of USF World and Interim Dean of the USF College of Education, said the Costa Rica program is an excellent example of the kinds of opportunities open to College of Education students who wish to study abroad.

"Education abroad is transformative. It changes your perspective of the world, how you think about your learning as a teacher, and how you think about the learning and cultural influences that your students will bring to the classroom," Brindley said. "I strongly encourage undergraduate and graduate students to plan well ahead and take advantage of the extraordinary life-changing opportunities."

The Costa Rica program is also open to students pursuing majors other than English Education. Elementary Education majors participating in the trip are doing so as part of an alternative field experience course that is taught by College of Education professor Jennifer Jacobs, PhD. For students not participating in either of these degree programs, the trip abroad counts as credit towards their degree in the form of an independent study course. Students took courses at the host institution, the ILISA Language School in San José

Regardless of their major, students participating in the experience found that there are many ways of teaching students in their classrooms about the world around them.

"Going abroad opens your mind to other ways of doing things ... There's more than one way to do things," Palczynski said. "There are new ideas out there and Americans don't have all of the answers either. You find out things from everybody of every culture because we all have good ideas."

Students on Costa Rica Study Abroad Trip Eat Lunch at a Restaurant in San Jose.

Students do more than just study while abroad. They also get the opportunity to experience the culture and community first-hand. Photo provided by Sara Palczynski.

Students on the trip stayed with host families in the local community. Palczynski and Gonzalez experienced more than the Costa Rican culture because their host stay with an elderly couple was spent alongside a number of students from other countries, such as Germany and the Bahamas.

Most of Palczynski and Gonzalez's time visiting schools was spent in the private school environment. Because Costa Rican schools run from February to November, the schools they visited were in session during their time in the country.

USF students on the trip were able to observe classrooms and engage with students in practicing basic English conversation about what they like to do, what music they enjoy and what they would like to do with their lives. The USF students were also able to mentor the students as they put together presentations for their classes.

While public school classes were all in Spanish, Colegio Monterrey's students are placed in an English immersion environment with a Spanish class and a French class. 

For Palczynski, watching the Spanish-only classes was an eye-opening experience. Palczynski said she doesn't speak much Spanish, so the confusion she felt as she tried to pick out key words and phrases that she knew helped put her in the shoes of an English language learner student.

"You become more empathetic than you already are," she said.

For Gonzalez, the opportunity to interact with English language learner students will help with her future plans to teach in Korea after she graduates.

"The classrooms that I'm observing or interacting (with) in the U.S. (in my) regular class are just Florida-based classrooms," Gonzalez said. "I don't really have experience with too many international students or too many language learners, but my field is English education with a concentration in ESOL, so that's my specialty. I wanted to learn more about how (English language learners) learn ... in a different country. So learning more about it abroad prepares me further for when I experience teaching in Korea, or when I decide if maybe I want to teach in Costa Rica. I can be prepared and be experienced and adapt myself to different classrooms settings (and) different student personas."

The Costa Rican school system is a lot like the school system Gonzalez, born and raised in Puerto Rico, started out in.

With the Panama vs. Costa Rica game taking place during their trip, soccer was a popular subject among the students at the school. The schools tend to integrate a lot of outdoor activities, Gonzalez said. Palczynski's volleyball match was along that same vein.

"It was really fun to get out of just academics and really (interact with the students) on a more personal level in sports, something that's more fun and active ... where they feel more comfortable," Palczynski said.

Through their homestay, USF students have been immersed in Costa Rican life and society, and for both Gonzalez and Palczynski, this has been a growth experience.

Gonzalez said the trip has helped her learn to watch out for others a bit more. As she was talking with her host father one day, he said to her, "'if your fruit tree has a lot of fruit and you don't really need that much, you share it with your neighbor.'"

"Most people don't think that way in the States, I would say," Gonzalez said. "If they have too much fruit on their tree, they would rather see it rot than give it to other people a lot of the time."

For Palczynski, the contrast from the individualistic American society struck her. People in Costa Rica talk to each other more with that focus on family and generosity, she said.

"There are times where you could be more friendly, and there are times where you could do more for people," Palczynski said. "In those little moments is when you can shine."

To learn more about this study abroad program, visit the USF Education Abroad website.