Pura vida. For Ticos, or Costa Ricans, the phrase has greater meaning than its literal translation.

"Pura vida is like the "hakuna matata" of Costa Rica," said Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss, director of Sol Education Abroad in Costa Rica. "It's like an "aloha."

Literally, it means "pure life," and that's part of what Costa Rica is: slowing down, relaxing, having a cup of coffee with your mama tica, and just being grateful for whatever you have, no matter how simple the pleasure. Pura vida can mean "hello," "goodbye," "How are you?" "Thank you," "you're welcome," "It's all good."

When Dr. Benita Sampedro and Dr. Brenda Elsey sought a country for a special summer study abroad program for Latin American and Caribbean Studies (LACS), Costa Rica was a natural choice. "Costa Rica is very well known in the region for the success of its sustainability programs and its long-standing democratic tradition, which are, of course, related. Its stability has provided a kind of model for the region," said Dr. Elsey, an associate professor of history who co-directs the LACS program with Dr. Sampedro, an associate professor of romance languages and literatures.

This unique social landscape allowed LACS to design the program as interdisciplinary.

"In LACS, we have faculty participating from every discipline in the university that's able to," Dr. Elsey said. "And in Costa Rica we can combine the history and the sustainability coursework and engage the students from different units across Hofstra."

  • Brenda Elsey with plate of food
Matt Christian

"I actually love living with a host family because it's how you experience the culture first hand and you learn how people act, and how to assimilate with the culture, manners and norms, how people do certain things," said senior Matt Christian, from Albany. "Spanish is not my first language nor am I fluent by any means. I'm trying, I took Spanish in high school and it's all coming back, like riding a bike very slowly."

Academic Program

Students in the Costa Rica Study Abroad program chose between 3 or 6 credit schedules: Journeys through Latin America: Introduction to Cultures and Histories of Central America, a history course with Dr. Elsey, or Sustainability Management and Practices in Latin America and the Caribbean, with Professor Sandra Garren. Classes took place at the Universidad Latina de Costa Rica. Taking classes in an integrated program added to the experience, according to Dr. Elsey.

  • "There's an intensity to being together outside of the classroom," she said. "We have curricular activities that we wouldn't necessarily be able to do on campus. We might spend an entire day together doing something outside of my comfort zone and outside their comfort zone. The other day we hiked up a volcano, it was pouring rain at seven in the morning. When would I have gotten my students to stand in the rain at daybreak while I lectured for over two hours on the history of the local indigenous?"

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Linda Serrano

Senior Linda Serrano of Amityville New York, was surprised by "how happy I've been, to be honest, and carefree."

"Yesterday, we went zip lining and, I never thought I'd do something like that," she said. "I conquered my fear of heights, and just letting go. I never thought I'd go to another country, especially by myself so doing it all alone and on my own makes it more exciting."

Exploring Costa Rica: Excursions fun and educational

Excursions in the Costa Rica program mixed education and recreation. With Dr. Elsey, students visited the Arenal volcano area, where they discussed the history of indigenous cultures, while enjoying swimming under the waterfalls of La Fortuna, bathing in the hot springs of Los Lobos and zip-lining through the cloud forest.

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Another excursion, with Dr. Garren, was a weekend at Punta Mona and its Center for Regenerative Design & Botanical Studies, an 85-acre off-the-grid, Caribbean beach front, environmental education center, botanical collection, permaculture farm and eco-lodge, where students learned about sustainability but also went sea-kayaking and swimming.

"Punta Mona is really off the grid. It's not the first thing you think of when you think of a vacation, but it was a great, beautiful place that exemplified the pura vida and the sustainability of Costa Rica," said Asha Lewis. "We also went to one of the volcanoes where we could see not only the geology in the area but the wildlife the great range of biodiversity from the mountain top to the tropical coast."

Nora Spiegel

"The excursions enrich the class because you are learning more: you're doing sustainability and cultural history," said Nora Spiegel, an undeclared sophomore from San Francisco. "So you can also use what you've learned in class in the excursion as well."

Learning the Culture

In between classes and weekend trips, Sol Education kept students and faculty busy. "We have a broad range of cultural activities that are showing you the best that Costa Rica has to offer: biodiversity, culture, history," explained Cifuentes-Hiss. "Cooking class is always a favorite, it's basically a three hour long workshop with the students cooking and eating all types of traditional, delicious recipes that have been handed down from our cooking instructor's great-great-great-grandmother. There's dance class. We go out to discotheque. We do city tours, tasting local tropical fruits and pastries. We went to the National Museum in San Jose, the capital."

  • At Chieton Moren, students bought "fair trade" goods directly from tradespeople in a marketplace that promoted the crafts of the indigenous cultures of Costa Rica. At the Britt plantation, they sampled the coffees of Costa Rica and learned how the bean is harvested and roasted. At a rescue ranch, students got up close with injured toucans and other animals native to Costa Rica.

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Joanne Hernandez

Joanne Hernandez, a senior accounting student from Massapequa, discovered untapped confidence. "I feel like I can just go to any country now," she said. "Going out and exploring, that wasn't something I used to do, but would I definitely do that now. I'm way more comfortable in my own skin."

Volunteering in Costa Rican organizations

  • For students taking the 3 credit option, they also had a volunteer/internship experience, at a local school or an animal shelter. "Service learning is also a vital part of the program because it's an opportunity to give back," according to Cifuentes-Hiss. "We volunteer in our local public elementary schools with the kindergarten children. We also do environmental education, tree planting, we paint local park benches and make little gardens. Students can volunteer at the animal shelter as well as at the elderly center."

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For sophomore Emily Sauchelle, a journalism student from Garden City, volunteering was a valuable part of the trip. "Working at a school with children and teaching them English and environmental education - which is in line with what we're learning in sustainability, is beneficial for us and for them," she said. "The children are very into learning about everything so it'll be very exciting to get talk to them and teach them."

This integrated and immersive approach gives students more than credits towards a degree. It's a transformative experience in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Transformation from the Inside

"The best part of the experience for me is the opportunity I have to get out of my comfort zone, and hopefully grow in some meaningful way," said Pete Kechejian, a graduating senior majoring in psychology from Northport, New York. "Whether it is through interacting with a roommate, with people who don't speak the same language, visiting Punta Mona, a village that strives to be more sustainable and adopts a more simplistic lifestyle with less materialism. All these new scenarios, and people, and ideas, and moments I hope contribute in a positive way for my self-growth so that I can use that to inspire and help other people."

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Finally, students who live, work, study and play together create a special bond, with each other and the people with whom they interact. "Coming here, I didn't think we were going to be such a community and such a big group and be so comfortable with each other, but we've almost been so nuclear like a family, kind of, with the Sol people, and the professors, and it's so fun," stated Joanne Hernandez.

This integration and immersion is the point, according to Dr. Elsey.

"These kinds of programs bring students from all different language backgrounds and academic interests together. Students who weren't very familiar with Latin America or Spanish learned from the students with prior experience. Different students exhibited leadership in different areas, whether it was navigational, linguistic, or social," Elsey said. "The students have bonded and formed a really nice dynamic. What we've found so far is that people of almost every academic and extracurricular group has found interests, and that's what universities are supposed to be: places where we all come together and where we problem solve from a variety of disciplinary backgrounds."