I began the study abroad process with ambivalence, but eventually, I decided I was going to miss a huge, maturing, eye-opening experience if I didn’t go. I went to the Study Abroad Office to explore the options I had, which were few given my late start—only Costa Rica, China, Botswana, and a few others were available. I knew none of these programs would advance my neuroscience major, so I decided to go for a fun experience, and Costa Rica has delivered just that. I have experienced my fair share of personal growth, excitement, and adventure—like when we rode horseback to the base of the Nauyaca Waterfalls and jumped off a 30-foot ledge into the middle of the falls.
I chose Costa Rica partly because it was completely different than my home state of Colorado. It has wildlife I couldn’t imagine: So far, we have seen everything from three species of monkeys, two species of sloths, snakes, lizards, and a huge diversity of bugs to the most spectacular aquatic life in Panama. I also chose Costa Rica because I could speak some Spanish before coming and I knew that having a foot in the door with a foreign language would make a huge difference. I speak Spanish every day with my host families, and as I have improved over time I’ve been able to have conversations with other locals. I am also interested in environmental sciences, so being able to explore a new country while learning more about that field sounded perfect.
Yet one of the most appealing aspects of the program is the directed independent study portion. The directed independent study spans the final five weeks of the program and allows each student to independently investigate an aspect of their experience that has become intriguing in the preceding three months. I have decided to investigate the leafcutter ants that are abundant in the rainforest of Costa Rica. These ants are everywhere, and they consume up to 15 percent of the green matter in a rainforest ecosystem, which makes them not only interesting but hugely accessible. I also knew that I wanted a hands-on project that would be different from anything I’ve done here or in Claremont. The hands-on aspect allows me to engage in more active learning, rather than classroom learning.
Another great thing about this program is its malleability. Since this program appeals more to my peripheral interests in environmental analysis rather than serving my major, it’s been a revitalizing change of pace that has further cemented my chosen field of study. By taking a step back and working in a new field, I’ve come to appreciate my educational choices and goals for the future.
One of the most surprising aspects of my experience is how “ungreen” Costa Rica is for being such a visually green country. In the first five weeks, we took a course studying the development and growth of the country that really opened my eyes. I have become more knowledgeable of developing countries’ oppression via larger countries like the United States, which results in lower environmental standards because, quite frankly, there isn’t enough money to build a sufficient economy with the monetary resources to protect such important natural resources.
Another highlight in this program has been the amount of traveling, with and independently of the program, which has greatly opened my eyes to the ecology and economy of greater Latin America as we’ve visited nearby countries. In Nicaragua, our visit stayed away from touristy areas and focused on studying the political stability and exploitation of workers, which was very eye-opening. In contrast, our trip to Panama consisted of a few days of free time for a little vacation, followed by a week-long class on marine ecology, where we learned in the field while snorkeling along beautiful reefs.
As the semester concludes, I’m satisfied that I made the right choice. The wildlife has been more incredible than I could have imagined, and I have learned vast amounts about preventing the exploitation of developing countries’ biodiversity. Getting out of the classroom gave me a fresh perspective, just as I predicted. I’m glad I didn’t miss out!
Nolan Lassiter PZ ’15 is a neuroscience major and environmental analysis minor studying with Pitzer College in Costa Rica. His focus is the Culture, Environment, and Ecology track.