For Carol Cameron, awaking to the sounds of morning birdsong in San Luis de Monteverde, Costa Rica, is all part of the job.
Better known as Carolina on the University of Georgia Costa Rica campus, Cameron has spent the last 15 springs teaching English to staff and community members in the area.
Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Cameron first came to the area in 1991 to study the long-tailed manakin, a bird with a unique mating strategy, before returning eight years later to stay with her husband in Cerra Plano.
During this time Cameron began volunteering at UGACR, staying overnight in order to spend two days a week, from January to May, providing students with individualized English lessons. Having previously used these techniques at the University of Wisconsin teaching English to the spouses of international students, Cameron already had the grammatical basics required for most Costa Rican students.
“I almost always am giving class one on one, feeling out what level they’re at and adapting to that to see what they’re ready to study,” Cameron said. “Here in Costa Rica I’ve had people in all age ranges, from 8 year olds who couldn’t read to people in their mid-50s or preparing to go to grad school in the U.S.”
Cameron’s husband, Russ Kumai, has joined her these years as a fellow birdwatcher and instructor in mathematics. Like English, math is often missing in the average Costa Rican education, which can commonly end before the fourth grade.
“A huge number of the people in this community get their living from tourism,” Kumai explained. “Knowing some English gives them some mobility into the tourist economy, and the educational system for the locals oftentimes results in learning minimum English. What Carolina does is get some of them started, adding another level to make their lives better.”
For many of these students, around a dozen per any given year, this escalation into the workforce can make taking the English lessons from Cameron difficult to arrange. She said that many of the students face complications in terms of job schedule and transport for lessons, which may only last a few hours, depending on the student’s goal.
“I have a lot of students who come and go,” Cameron said. “People here work really hard and their lives are pretty complicated, so I might meet with someone only a few times before life gets too complicated. Some have to wait a few weeks before coming back.”
This also includes students who must walk to the UGACR campus themselves, and the unpredictability of these pupils’ appearance taught Cameron patience.
“When I first started teaching I would be frustrated by people not showing up, but then I realized life can be complicated and when I have a high school student who walks here from town and has to walk back, it just shows that some people show an incredible level of dedication to learning English,” she said.
Cameron’s one-on-one approach also helps students trying to achieve specific goals, usually occupational in nature. At UGACR this includes teaching basic vocabulary to kitchen and wait staff, as well as guards.
“This focused method can be a very effective way for them to learn quickly and get a job,” Cameron explained. “It’s not uncommon to meet people in Costa Rica who stopped going to school in the third grade, and that affects how people will learn a second language. They don’t have the academic preparation in the same way that someone in the U.S. would.”
Other past students include applicants for restaurant positions, those interested in pharmaceutical jobs, and even a trio of 8-year-old boys learning pronunciation for their bilingual classes at school. One of these three boys, Pablito, the son of UGACR kitchen worker Lili Fuentes, practices reading with Cameron, and is the third-generation member of his family to study with her.
Molly Bond, reservations and logistics coordinator at UGACR, further explained the connection between a tourist economy, and the necessity which that creates for learning basic English.
“The way people in this region make a living is half from agriculture and dairy, and the other half is from tourism and because of this, knowing English is pivotal to secure these jobs,” Bond said. “Here in the community surrounding San Luis especially, UGACR employs many people and it opens up a lot more job opportunities here if staff members are able to speak English.”
And perhaps the most important aspect of teaching such individuals, especially for Cameron, is having the fluency in Spanish needed to teach grammatical lessons.
“It’s very difficult if you can’t converse with people in their language, which Carolina can,” Kumai said. “Her fluency in Spanish makes it much easier to explain things at a basic level and make that important connection with students.”
But Cameron has found another reason as well.
“Here I speak Spanish with my students because doing it one on one allows me to explain concepts clearly,” Cameron said. “I think that’s something that has really made me in demand here as a teacher, where some of the naturalists might be interested in tutoring people in English but can’t explain fully.”
The people in the area that neighbors the campus, as well as her student’s dedication to learning, help contribute to Cameron’s continuing visits.
“The San Luis valley is a very unique community, with such a strong sense of working together and stability,” Cameron said. “People are friendly and warm, and teaching here has been this great entrance into this community.
“I think UGA has a big commitment to the community, and I’m really benefiting from that because I enjoy what I do so much. I feel very fortunate to do this.”
Blog post and photos by Holly Roberts, UGA Art, Astronomy and Journalism Study Abroad Student