Hey y’all, it’s Siri.
I spent this summer studying abroad and basking in the beautiful (and potent) Costa Rican sun. The culture there was super laid-back and warm (it’s kinda reminiscent of New Orleans), and I was absolutely awestruck by the dense, prolific rainforests and unique animals and plants we had the opportunity to see there. During our time there, we volunteered at an organization called Fundacion Accion Joven (FAJ). FAJ aims to decrease dropout rates in low-income schools in San Jose (the capital). Our job was to help the students improve their English language skills through conversations (and we in turn improved our Spanish). Through volunteering, I learned many discrepancies in the Costa Rican governmental and social systems. Although in many aspects, the country seemed to be run terrifically (for example, it has no standing army, it has universal healthcare, there’s an extremely good water sanitation system and electricity in nearly every house, and a nearly a 100% literacy rate), there was inequality manifested in the low-income schools, which were mostly made up of Nicaraguans, who are routinely discriminated against. (Costa Rica has border control issues with Nicaragua; it’s similar to the situation between the U.S. and Mexico.)
Throughout the experience, I felt as if I learned as much or even more from the students as they did from me and could draw many parallels between their situation and the one of illegal immigrants here. My Spanish improved substantially and I got a unique glimpse into what life was like as someone marginalized and not considered a part of a developed society, though they were doing all they could to contribute. If I had to pick the most important thing I learned, it was to re-define service. What I felt like I was doing in Costa Rica was more like organized camaraderie – getting to know and understand the students. I hadn’t really done much anything to help their situation except for sympathize and tell others (which do have some impact). I learned that service is something you must always analyze and reflect on and that you should always be willing to ask tough questions, like whether your role is the best way genuinely help, what your motivations for doing service are (many times they’re self-serving, which isn’t necessarily wrong if you recognize that), how you received (not necessarily earned) the opportunity to serve and what privileges you received along with it, and recognizing that though you’ve received that opportunity, you might not know the best way to serve those you’re working with. Most importantly, I learned that you must treat those you serve with dignity; that means you must always see them as people like yourself rather than cases that need to be solved. I believe that only when you ask these questions can you move towards a better situation for everyone, and allow others to have the lives and respect they deserve and the same opportunities you were given.
I’m so glad I got to go to Costa Rica, to be thrown into a culture that was completely different from my own, and to meet the students I did (they’re honestly some of the nicest people I’ve met), if only just to see that things can still function if done differently. I hope I’ve brought back a little bit of Costa Rica, a little bit of of what I’ve learned, to Tulane and New Orleans.