Stretching my comfort zone in Costa Rica

Julia Preszler, CAMD'21

Julia Preszler is a fourth-year student majoring in journalism and minoring in environmental studies. She has interned at The Boston Globe, The Chautauquan Daily and two community newspapers in Connecticut. Julia will be studying abroad at Universidad Veritas in San José, Costa Rica. She is looking forward to exploring the country's national parks and learning more about environmental issues, since she hopes to focus her career on environmental journalism.

My goal for studying abroad was to be bad at as many things as possible. 

Before I left, I knew there would be a lot of times during this experience, especially in the beginning, when I would feel uncomfortable, unsure, stupid, and frustrated. Maybe even all four at the same time. 

I was coming to a place that I had very little knowledge about, and where the dominant language was one I did not understand. I knew I would not have immediate success with communicating with my host mom and other Costa Ricans. I knew that at times, I would struggle to navigate the streets and figure out where to buy groceries, clothing, and other necessary items. In a new environment, it is only natural to feel like a bumbling fool at times. 

So, my goal was to be bad at as many things as possible. With this intent in mind, I was free to go about trying new things, butchering Spanish in front of native speakers, and getting lost on the way to a destination. I figure it is better to be bad at something than to never try it at all. 

If I keep doing something I’m bad at, eventually, I’ll become good, or at least decent, at it. 

During the first week and a half-ish, I was very much out of my comfort zone for large chunks of each day. At breakfast and dinner with my host mother, María, I struggled to understand her. I was actually surprised at how much of her Spanish that I did understand, but still, there was a lot I didn’t get. And even if I could comprehend her, I was not very successful in being able to respond in Spanish. 

Once I started my language class, I was launched into four hours of discomfort every day. I was placed in a level of Spanish that was a little advanced for me. The entire class was taught in Spanish, with no English to help me along. The other students in the class were better at the language than I was, so they were able to say whole paragraphs in Spanish, while I struggled to stitch together a mere sentence. School normally comes pretty easily to me, so being the worst student in the class was a new and unpleasant sensation. 

I was also forced to practice my Spanish whenever I ordered food at a restaurant or cafe. The simple act of grabbing something to eat is complicated by the language barrier. Luckily, everybody has been super patient with me so far. 

I had another opportunity to be bad at something in the form of the Latin dance class Universidad Véritas offers two evenings a week for international students. Aside from some interpretive dance summer camps I did as a child, I have not done much dancing. I have always struggled with copying the moves of instructors. It just doesn’t click in my head. But, here was another chance to get out of my comfort zone and to learn something new. So, I went. I followed some steps really well, and some really poorly. Luckily, most of the other students in the class were on the same page, so we could all laugh at our own incompetence. By the second dance class, I already felt like I had improved. I can’t wait to see what I will be able to do by the end of the semester. 

Getting accustomed to life in San José also took a little while. It gets dark by 6 p.m. here, which is significantly earlier than it is at this time of year in the United States. The school and my program, API, also warned us repeatedly to be extra careful while walking around after dark. It felt strange to be in a place where I needed to take precautions to be safe out in the city. In Boston, I am used to long solo walks during and after dusk. At first, I felt a little closed in and stuck in my house after dark. As someone who always likes to be doing things, this was difficult for me. 

After about the first week, I started to get used to life here. It finally sunk in that this was where I was going to spend the next four months. A daily routine started to form, which was comforting. I ran a couple of errands — one to get an umbrella, one to grab some snacks from the grocery store — that helped me to feel more a part of this place. Errands are something you only run in a place you are living. 

But, my first full weekend here, I went with some friends to Jacó, a beach and surfing town on the Pacific Coast. All of the sudden, I was a totally new environment once again, and it was a lot to take in. As soon as we stepped off of the boat, we could feel the brutal humidity. That night, I stayed in a hostel for the first time, sleeping in a room of five other women that had no air conditioning and was located right above a bar, so it was extremely loud until the early morning hours. 

In Jacó, I was about two steps out of my comfort zone. But the weekend ended wonderfully, with a great night talking with new friends around a picnic table at the hostel, and a calm Sunday morning before we hopped on a bus back to San José. 

When I got back to San José, I felt like I was arriving in a familiar place. It felt similar to my bus rides back to Boston after visiting my family in Connecticut. 

Now, only two weeks in, I am very comfortable with my routine here. My Spanish has improved exponentially. I’ve made some wonderful friends who I look forward to hanging out with every day. It took a little while to get situated, but now that I am, I am glad I went through the discomfort necessary to truly arrive.