Giving Back to Costa Rica and Peru

Waxman 1“When you learn, teach. When you get, give.” – Maya Angelou

I am extremely blessed. I have spent my life exposed to an innumerable amount of learning experiences, and have been given so many opportunities for personal growth. My time at Northeastern has been no exception.  When it came time to apply for my first co-op position, I was ready to give back. I knew I had talents and knowledge to share, and I knew there was a world I wanted to see. What I didn’t know was exactly where I wanted to see and what I wanted to spread. This resulted in an extremely unique opportunity for me, wherein I divided my co-op between three different countries and four different jobs. Through the International Co-op office, I was employed through the volunteer organization Geovisions to work in the National Children’s Hospital in San Jose, Costa Rica, both an elementary school and the Tupac Amaru Medical Center in Lima, Peru, and a daycare center in the Galapagos Islands. Through these experiences, I gained an entirely new perspective of the world.

I embarked on my journey with little remembrance of the Spanish language, limited knowledge of the cultures I was entering, and no solitary travel experience. I had no idea what to expect. When I arrived in Costa Rica, I was terrified. I felt unprepared and under-qualified. My first couple of days required a lot of adjustment, but my host family and fellow volunteers took me in as their own and ensured I was comfortable and familiar with my surroundings. As I relaxed, I vowed to immerse myself in every aspect of the culture that I could. I took two weeks of Spanish lessons to refresh my memory, and in combination with only speaking Spanish in my home-stay, began to gain confidence in my language abilities.

The workplace proved to be the most difficult setting in which to immerse myself. I had a strong interest in healthcare, had not had much hands-on experience with the field to date. The hospital was much smaller than any hospital I had seen in the United States, and boasted a much smaller staff. While I was growing in my Spanish abilities, I was still unfamiliar with quite a few medical terms, and this was a learning barrier I had to battle daily in order to overcome. In addition, due to the smaller staff, I had more responsibilities than I expected. I spent half of my days learning about the medical procedures within the hospital, and the other half visiting with the infants and children. I had the opportunity to develop personal relationships with the youth and families I was working with. With time, I grew comfortable and looked forward to interacting with my co-workers and patients every day. When it came time for a few of the young patients in “Medicina 5,” a unit a spent a lot of time in, to be discharged, they actually protested and did not want to leave, claiming that after they went home they would miss me too much. It was a very special feeling to know that impact that I made on their lives.

After eight weeks in Costa Rica, I transitioned to Peru. This adjustment was much smoother, as I had gained confidence in both my travel and language abilities. I lived in a house full of volunteers from around the world, and had an incredible support system with Geovisions’ partners located in Lima. Throughout my time in Peru, what I remember most is the perspective of the people I was working with. The area I was in was not the most affluent and the community members did not have many material belongings, or even basic needs. The health center where I was placed was also very basic – no computer, minimal medical supplies, one doctor. However, the community was happy. They were content with what they had and wanted for very little. And that was amazing for me to see and to feel – a community so at peace with their reality. After working at the medical center for about three weeks, the doctors in the area went on an indefinite strike, and due to this I switched my placement to an elementary school. At this school, I again felt that warmth and connection that I felt in Costa Rica – I was asked for ways to improve the English education system in the school, and designed worksheets and lesson plans that they asked to keep and make copies of to base their plans off in the future. And when it was time to leave every day, the children would climb on me and cling to me, begging me to stay. It was again very special and moving to feel like I was making a significant contribution to their young lives.

My final destination was the Galapagos Islands, which felt the most like home for me. I believe having this as my final destination aided in my feelings of true immersion: I was ready and able to fully embrace the culture without hesitations, skills I learned throughout my journey leading to the Galapagos. I lived in another host family that was located two minutes on foot from the daycare where I worked. The population I worked in was extremely diverse, due to the amount of travelers that had moved there permanently after experiencing the magic of the Islands. During my time there, I grew very close with my host family and the other teachers at the daycare center. The environment was very light-hearted and fun-filled, and spending time with the children, between the ages of one and seven years, opened my eyes to fresh perspective on life in the Islands. At the daycare center, I worked with the children on learning English by developing creating and active methods of learning, combing what I knew of youth education in the United States with the pre-established ways of South America.

Transitioning from an individualistic focused upbringing to living and working in collectivist cultures had an incredible impact on my appreciation of human interaction. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where you are – it matters who you’re with. Living with people who did not have “much” by American’s standards, I came to see what truly matters in life – the best things you have cannot be seen, cannot be measured.

What I learned during my time abroad has remained at the core of my life. Upon my return, I aimed to merge the perspectives of the countries I had lived and worked in with the perspectives of life here in America. The genuine appreciation of and value the people I met placed on life has resonated with me every day. I felt like such a true member of their cultures. I learned so much every day – from the moment I woke up to the moment I went to bed. I learned about the differences in our work places, health care, commuting systems, philosophies on life, religions, food, and every topic in between. Not only just from personal experiences, but from the relationships I developed. Everyone was so eager to learn and to teach, myself not excluded. I took advantage of every opportunity placed before me. I gave all that I could give to each experience I had, and returned home feeling as though I made an incredible impact on the lives I had touched. This was not left unreturned. I reflect on this trip every day of my life. I learned, I taught, I got, and I gave. I could not have asked for anything else.

Kathryn Waxman, Communication Studies