5 Years Later: Reflections on Studying in Costa Rica

Brooke Matta graduated from the University of Mary Washington in 2014. She studied abroad with ISA in San Jose, Costa Rica, in 2012. Since then, she has taught abroad in Spain and worked in U.S. higher education. Wherever she is, you can probably find her hiking, trying new recipes, playing outside, teaching herself yoga, and reading. Check out her blog at upbeatatlas.com.

Facebook has been sending me daily reminders that, five years ago, I was having the time of my life in Costa Rica. Every time I log in to my account, I’m notified that “on this day” in 2012 I was making fantastic new friends, lounging next to verdant waterfalls, tasting gallo pinto for the first time, adopting foreign cities as my own, and practicing Spanish with my host family. The experience was three months of pure learning and growth, and it holds some of my happiest times and fondest memories.

Have you ever heard someone say that she didn’t realize how happy she was until the moment had already passed? Costa Rica wasn’t like that for me. I knew from the start that I had a good thing going, and tried to squeeze as much as I could out of every day. There is nothing quite like being 3,800 miles away from home, in a foreign but familiar country, with a group of friends you’ve just met who somehow turned into family overnight.

It is a feeling that many solo travelers can recognize: the feeling that the world outside your door is just as vast as the world inside of you, and that you’re lucky enough to be exploring both at the same time. Now, five years later, I can look back on my experience and see how it continues to benefit me today.

Relationships. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the friends I made in Costa Rica would continue to play a huge role in my life down the road. There’s always the fear that when you form relationships while traveling, the bonds will dissolve once you enter “the real world” again. Not so with our group. Sometimes I can hardly believe my luck – that I’ve been able to reconnect with my study abroad squad in two countries, five states, and counting. In fact, our most recent reunion was to celebrate a wedding between two of them! It’s true that our friendship requires more work than most, and usually involves hopping on a plane at least once a year, but I’ve learned that time and distance are trivial when it comes to sustaining genuine relationships.

Professional development. My time studying abroad influenced my professional path more than any other experience to date. Costa Rica exposed me to parts of the world and humanity that I had never seen before. It reaffirmed to me the value of education, both academic and practical. It sparked my interest in higher education, language teaching, and study abroad programming, so that I can help others have experiences just as transformative as mine.

Character. I often say that I was the best version of myself while I was in Costa Rica, and I use that as a point of reference to this day. I know how generous and compassionate I can be, how empowered I feel from tackling new challenges, and how many interests I can cultivate at the same time. I strive to be the girl I was in Costa Rica, and I think that I’ve been a happier and better person for it in the years since then. Moving to a new country where I didn’t know a soul and was not fluent in the language gave me a renewed sense of confidence and self-awareness. It was the first time I wholeheartedly ditched routine and threw myself into the unknown, and that feeling has energized me ever since.

Studying abroad taught me so much, but five years of perspective has given me a few extra takeaways. First, that no matter your circumstances in meeting someone, genuine connection can last as long as you make time for the relationship. Second, that novel experiences – especially ones that regularly push you out of your comfort zone – will alter the course of your career. Events that affect you to your core will also affect what you want to do with your life. And third, that discovering the best version of yourself will encourage you to chase that person for the rest of your life. Whether you go through periods of growth or stagnation, happiness or sadness, you will always know what you’re capable of – and you’ll want to be that person again and again.

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The world awaits…discover it.


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