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My Study Abroad Journey as a Black Woman in Costa Rica

February 19, 2024
by Zoë Spencer

Radiant Reflections: A Black Woman's Study Abroad Chronicles 

Studying abroad in Costa Rica as a Black woman was a profoundly transformative experience that not only broadened my horizons but also shaped my identity in ways I hadn't anticipated. In a country where diversity took on a different hue, I navigated a cultural landscape that prompted introspection and self-discovery. Embracing a culture that differed significantly from my own allowed me to confront preconceived notions and stereotypes, fostering a sense of resilience and cultural dexterity. The warmth of the Costa Rican people transcended language barriers, creating connections that went beyond the superficial. 

a study abroad student standing on a balcony

This picture was taken on the balcony of my homestay while studying abroad in San José.

The trees seen are in our backyard. This was during my first full day in Costa Rica; I was mesmerized by its beauty. I quickly ran to grab my polaroid camera to get a candid shot of the scenery. My roommate happened to capture me getting this shot with her phone. This balcony became one of my favorite spots in the house. I stood here often here and looked at the backyard while playing with the dogs.  

Initially, I was worried about entering a country where few people would look, or talk like me. In the U.S., I have much experience being the minority, and I didn’t think that’d change in Costa Rica. As a Black woman in a predominantly homogeneous society, I became a representative of diversity, breaking down stereotypes and engaging in conversations that highlighted the universality of human experiences. The experience was an affirmation of the strength inherent in cultural exchange, challenging me to embrace my identity proudly while appreciating the richness of others'. It was a journey of empowerment, as I discovered the universality of shared aspirations and dreams that transcend racial and cultural boundaries. One thing that surprised me the most, was how little Costa Rican’s spoke on race/ethnicity. I learned that we put far more emphasis on race and color in the U.S. than people do in Latin countries.  

Home Away from Home: Connections & Community made in Costa Rica 

My host family had a large impact on my time abroad. Immediately upon arrival in the country, they made me feel at home. I never questioned my place in their house or in their city. I was always made to feel like a part of the family.  

This was during my tour of El Museo Nacional de Costa Rica. My classmates and peers in the CEA CAPA study abroad program decided to go to the national museum of Costa Rica. After classes ended at noon we walked from the university to the museum. The museum was beautiful with many different exhibits in it. My favorite was the butterfly garden, which is where this photograph was taken. There were so many beautiful plants and butterflies and I felt so at peace. This was only my second day in the country and this museum helped me recognize the country’s immense beauty!  

two study abroad students posing for a picture

This is a photo of Dylan and me. We’re the only students who came from Xavier University of Louisiana.

Initially, I was very afraid of going to Costa Rica due to my fear of being one of few African American students and with people I do not know. Dylan made my adaptation to Costa Rica very smooth and less frightening. He and I were friends before the trip, however our bond grew much stronger while studying abroad in Costa Rica. In this photo we were at the rainforest café during our first study abroad excursion to Aguirre, Costa Rica.  

a study abroad student standing on a beach

This photo was taken on Playa Manuel Antonio.

Playa Manuel Antonio was quite literally the most beautiful beach I had seen. The water was so clear and blue, and I truly felt at home and at peace here. When I go to the beach I never get in the water, however on this trip I swam in the ocean. For some reason I felt comfortable enough to do so. After that we laid in the sand and sun bathed.  

I knew when I saw a sign at a local restaurant near Manuel Antonio National Park, that I picked the right place to study abroad. It translates to “Costa Rica is peace, joy, love, and life," which proved to be very true. When I saw this sign while eating, I immediately felt more relaxed and welcomed. This sign also reminds me of the slogan of Costa Rica, which is “Pura Vida,” meaning pure/good life. That’s the cheerful and positive outlook that most local citizens have on life in Costa Rica.  

I took Intermediate Spanish for Healthcare Professionals at Veritas University in San José. We were tasked with roleplaying doctors and taking the height, weight, demographics, and symptoms of “patients” (students from the school and community). This day helped me realize my passion for medicine and healthcare. My teacher had such a large impact on my learning experience and allowed me to transform what I knew about the American healthcare system and compare it with Costa Rica’s healthcare system and customs.  

When looking back, I immediately smile. On our second excursion to La Fortuna, we toured a chocolate farm in San Carlos. We learned how to make chocolate from scratch! The tour guide showed us the whole process from picking the cacao beans out of the plant, roasting the beans, to grinding them up, to adding sugar and molding it into what we know as chocolate. My roommate and I grinded the roasted chocolate beans the way that they do on the farm. To make this process more fun and engaging, the workers often play musical instruments and create songs which you can see my classmate doing with the maraca behind me.  

The La Fortuna waterfall was such an enchanting sight. At this point, I never saw a waterfall in person, so this was my first time. The only challenging aspect of this waterfall was that it takes 500 steps to reach it. The 500 steps down are no problem, but the 500 steps it takes to get back up to the park are excruciating. Before my trek back up, I met two men from Canada in their 70s. They were in much better shape than me, and helped me climb back up the hundreds of stairs! That is an experience that I’ll never forget.  

One of my biggest concerns coming to Costa Rica was spending my birthday alone. Birthdays are a big deal where I come from, and I’ve always spent mine with my friends and family. Initially, I was very sad and worried about spending my birthday in a foreign country with people I didn’t know. My mama Tica made sure that my birthday was unforgettable. Not only did my host family throw me a birthday party at our home with a custom-made cake, but my professor and CEA CAPA Advisor Yeison also bought me cakes. Yeison even surprised me with a surprise party after classes. This day made me feel so loved and supported. It was easily one of the top five moments in my life!  

Our final closing dinner was at the local Italian restaurant in Barrio of San José. All CEA CAPA students attended to say our goodbyes to each other and to our advisor Yeison. Many tears were shed, and laughs spread. In this picture I’m with my mama Tica, who I love dearly. Her and I still talk on a regular basis. I’ll always be grateful to CEA CAPA for placing me with her and to her for welcoming me into her home.  

A study abroad student in front of plants

This was during my tour of El Museo Nacional de Costa Rica.

Costa Rica, with its vibrant tapestry of people and landscapes, became a canvas upon which I painted a narrative of self-discovery and resilience, altering the trajectory of my life in profound and empowering ways. The study abroad experience wasn’t just an academic endeavor; it was a celebration of my identity, a testament to the transformative power of diversity, and a pivotal chapter in my ongoing journey toward self-love and empowerment. 

Zoë Spencer is the Summer 2023 Alumni Ambassador in San Jose, Costa Rica, and is currently studying at Xavier University of Louisiana.
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