Going Green in Costa Rica


Phuc Pham | New University

Spring break. The week of bliss where college students can revel in a much-needed break away from classes, homework and other school-related obligations. There are many ways to spend this time off, such as traveling back home or vacationing at the beach, but this year, a few UC Irvine students decided to break away from these conventional locations. On March 21, 2014, 18 UCI students left their cell phones and technological devices behind, said goodbye to their loved ones, and hopped on a plane to a destination completely foreign to them: Costa Rica.

The group of adventurers had been waiting for this moment for months. After being accepted to the UCI Costa Rica program at the end of the 2013 fall quarter, the students enrolled in a class during winter quarter to prepare for the trip. The focus of the program is to gain a better understanding of sustainable ways of living through hands-on activities and different research projects. Each student picked a unique topic or question to study during the trip, ranging from the educational practices of certain communities, to how this country implements sustainability into their everyday lives. After completing all of the necessary background work, learning about the culture of Costa Rica, and brushing up on their Spanish, the students set off to apply their knowledge and explore during their spring breaks.

Another emphasis of the program is to spread awareness of what they learned upon their return. As part of these efforts, the travelers and organizers gathered in the Student Center’s Pacific Ballroom last Tuesday, May 6, to share their research and insights from the trip during their annual symposium.

Second-year business administration major, Medha Asthana, started off the series of trip stories by talking about how this adventure affected her interests in sustainability.

“I was actually already interested in sustainability before the trip — I was a recycling fanatic,” Asthana said.

“In Costa Rica, it wasn’t a fad or it wasn’t a trend. It wasn’t just a habit that I didn’t think about — this was an orientation towards life. Everything we ate came from the ground; everything we didn’t eat went back to the ground.”

Asthana then explained how her lifestyle habits have changed since the trip — she now composts everything and spreads this new knowledge of sustainability to her friends and roommates. She never realized just how much of an impact this trip would have on her habits.

Phuc Pham | New University

Phuc Pham | New University

The students learned about sustainability and other cultural aspects of Costa Rica by visiting the rural farm village of Mastatal and staying at an environmental learning center called Siempre Verde. They experienced open-air living, outdoor showers, composting toilets and farm-to-table organic meals. Additionally, all of the students were divided into pairs and assigned to stay overnight with local families in the rural town of Mastatal. It was here where students really had the opportunity to step outside of their comfort zone and truly experience the dynamics of family life in Costa Rica. Many of the students shared how this was one of their favorite aspects of the trip.

Aside from living in an entirely different way, the students also engaged in various community service projects. The students worked at a local primary school, where they continued to work on a greenhouse that was built by last year’s program participants. This greenhouse is used both to teach primary students and for them to grow their own food. Additionally, the UCI students worked on a variety of service projects at Siempre Verde, such as laying down cement for floor foundation and planting a garden.

For many of the students, what made these projects truly impactful for them was being able to immerse themselves fully into these tasks without the distractions of technology.

“Part of the trip that I thought was such an important aspect was that we didn’t have any technology for ten days,” Alyssa Collins, a third-year earth system science major, said.

“This is important because I think we need to be fully immersed in what you’re doing and who you’re with. You’ll take away a lot more if you’re not distracted by those little things such as Facebook, Instagram or texting.”

After several students shared their stories and insights from the trip, the crowd mingled around Pacific Ballroom to look at the students’ research projects and enjoy some sustainable and Costa Rican-inspired dishes provided by UCI Dining. The research projects and questions were vastly varied.

Breanne Downs, a fourth-year global cultures major, compared the nutrition of school lunches in Costa Rica to those in the United States for her research. Kathryn Waller, a fourth-year English major, embarked on her research project with the question of, “Do Costa Ricans view the GMO industry as a threat?” No matter what the students chose to research, there’s no doubt that these findings and explorations left an impact on their lives.

“There are some things that can be expected — the cold showers, organic meals, the midterm I took last week,” Antonia Bacigalupa Albaum, a second-year international studies major, said when reflecting on the trip.

“But there are some things you can’t expect. And staying with a family in Mastatal and realizing that you can actually communicate in Spanish is one of those things. And another one of those things is happiness. I never expected to find happiness in Costa Rica, and I’m so glad that I did. And now I want to search for that same feeling back in the U.S.”