When students from the University of Georgia pack their bags and travel to study abroad in Costa Rica, they are a long way from the comforts of home.
The journey typically starts with an hour or so drive to the Atlanta airport, followed by a flight that covers the 1,639 miles to that country’s capital city, San Jose.
From there they take a three-hour bus ride up unpaved, twisted mountain roads before reaching the UGA Costa Rica campus that is nestled in the region of Monteverde near the village of San Luis.
The miles of protected trails and endless green hillsides are stunning, but inconveniences like limited Wi-Fi connection leave some students feeling isolated.
Perhaps the biggest difference they experience from their everyday lives in America is the homestay part of the program, when students stay overnight with a local family for a span of between two and five days.
Joyce Leiton, the academic programs coordinator at the campus, helps coordinate the homestay assignments.
“There’s no other way for students to say that they were in Costa Rica, actually meeting Costa Rican people, when they spend most of their time at UGA hanging out with fellow students,” Leiton said.
Leiton said the homestays are an attempt to rectify this problem. They have been a required part of the UGA study abroad program since the campus opened in 2001.
There are 37 families in the Monteverde area that open their homes multiple times a year to complete strangers. Leiton describes the community as one big family, literally and figuratively.
“In San Luis, my dad had 14 brothers and sisters. Other families have seven children, some have 10,” Leiton said. “The community isn’t that big, something like 400 to 500 maximum, but somehow, everyone ends up being related.”
Leiton is a Tica herself, meaning that she is native to Costa Rica. Her family farm is the location of several of the homes that open their houses to students for the homestay program.
Leiton’s cousin, Kattia Leiton Salazar, and her husband, Paolo Salazar, are part of this large family.
Salazar’s parents, Victor and Artemida Leiton, are the patriarch and matriarch of the extensive Leiton family. They have been hosting homestays for several years. Thus, Salazar has been sharing her home with American students since she was a little girl.
“I often had students from the United States in my house when I was a girl,” she said. “Now it’s nice, because I get to do the same with my husband and three children.”
The Salazars have shared their home with approximately 15 students within the past few years.
They have two sons, Gustavo, 8, and Nicolas, 5, as well as a 1-year-old daughter named Danna. Salazar said that one of her favorite parts about being a homestay family is the cultural exchange that her children, as well as herself, get to experience.
“I like that the students can spread information about our culture when they talk to other people and go home to their families,” she said.
However, the homestays may bring about the challenge of communication. The Salazars speak no English. They said that the biggest obstacle for students and hosts during a homestay is undoubtedly the language barrier.
Leiton said that language is one factor that is considered when she creates homestay assignments. It works this way. Before going abroad, students rank two items on a survey that helps assess in what home they will be placed.
The first is their ability to speak Spanish, and the second is their comfortability and desire to have kids in the home. Leiton believes that the English and Spanish barrier isn’t as divisive when families have children around to play with.
“You have to remember how you communicated when you were a child, before language existed,” Leiton said.
Not every student’s request on their homestay survey can be accommodated.
Kathryn Lipscomb, a senior enrolled in the art, astronomy and journalism program, indicated that she really wanted to be placed in a home with kids. She packed toys and coloring books for children, only to find her home didn’t have any.
She thought interaction with her homestay family would’ve gone smoother if there were children in the home.
“Kids are eager to jump in and play with anyone,” Lipscomb explained. “They don’t look at race, age or origin. They just see another person to interact with.
“Being with adults, my roommate and I were both more aware of those differences which caused some tension.”
Despite the moments of tension and awkwardness recounted by some students on the art, astronomy and journalism program, many were upset that their program’s homestay only lasted for two nights.
Henry Schunk, a senior history and political science major, said the brevity of the homestay limited his ability to invest in the family he was staying with.
“When you’re interacting with people you don’t know that well yet, the more time and energy you’re able to invest in them, the more they are willing to give to you,” Schunk said. “With a few more days, hours or even a later bus pick up, we could’ve done that.”
“Pura vida” is a greeting that students will inevitably hear if they spend enough time in Costa Rica. In English, its literal translation is “pure life.” But for Ticos and Ticas, pura vida is a way of enjoying life, not just a slogan.
Junior Savanna Rabin was able to see this quality in her homestay family, and she noted how easily they lived.
She said her family epitomized pura vida, and she was able to learn the value of that lifestyle.
“It’s simpler,” Rabin said. “It’s easy to get wrapped up with extra things that don’t really matter. They taught me that we can live a very happy life with minimal materials.”
story and photo by Hannah Echols, student in journalism and astronomy