Melanie C. spent three weeks in Costa Rica learning Spanish, volunteering teaching English, and adventuring throughout the country. Like most participants, she chose a host-family stay to maximize her immersion experience and was able to more naturally advance her Spanish language skills. Check out the interview below to get more insight on what it’s like to study and volunteer abroad with Maximo Nivel in Costa Rica.
Why is it important for you to learn Spanish?
Like most high school students, I studied Spanish for about 2 years, never used it, and promptly forgot it. In February, I began working through the basic and intermediate bundles of lessons on audio books and completed the Duo Lingo training until my trip to Costa Rica in October. Learning Spanish is important to me because of the travel and work opportunities it can provide. I’m considering a career change and working abroad is something I’m really interested in potentially pursuing.
I’ve been working in the same job for 20+ years, and even if I decide not to make the change, I know I will benefit by being able to communicate with Spanish speakers. Right now, I rely on video translation services which takes away from the human connection. I also have a friend who is undocumented, and I have been wanting to better support her in her fight for social justice in the United States.
Do you think more people should learn a second language?
English speakers are privileged that so many non-native English speakers learn English as their second language, while most English speakers can get through life just fine without ever having to learn a second language. Learning a second language is important for stretching and keeping the brain active. But more importantly, it shows interest in other cultures, it broadens our perspective on life, and it helps us connect with more people on their terms.
Why Costa Rica? Were you surprised by the way Spanish was taught at the campus?
I chose Costa Rica as my Spanish immersion destination because I’ve always been interested in visiting Central America, and Costa Rica, specifically. When I began my classes at Maximo Nivel, I was surprised by how much speaking I had to do. It was a real struggle since all my Spanish preparations had basically been talking to an audiobook!
What was your greatest challenge?
I first had to take a placement test so they could place me at the appropriate level. I was pleased that all my preparation had shown up in my being listed as pre-intermediate I/II. Karen Campos, the Director at the Manuel Antonio campus, said that I was a strange mix because I had been self-taught and had not used the language for speaking. I improved the most by putting vocabulary and verb tense knowledge into use and actually creating sentences and speaking to people in ways that I could be understood. Speaking was the area I needed the most, and I definitely improved.
When and with whom did you use Spanish most?
Taking courses at Maximo Manuel Antonio gave me ample opportunity to use my Spanish inside and outside of the campus. At the campus, I frequently spoke with my instructor and the Director. I chose to stay with a host family, and the lovely woman who hosted me spoke absolutely no English! Neither did my travel companion. I was forced to use whatever Spanish I could to try to communicate the best I could. In the U.S., I’m never in a place where I am forced to speak in Spanish. This was a wonderful challenge for me.
What made you want to volunteer abroad?
I am passionate about the environment and the climate crisis. Late in 2018, I learned about Project Drawdown, the group of scientists and researchers who determined 100 things that the citizens of earth could do, which on a large scale, could reverse climate change. Number 6 on this list was educating girls and women.
How did you decide on teaching English?
I can’t build windmills or reforest the denuded rainforests, but I figured surely I could teach. Somehow this was the thing that struck me, and I wanted to make a difference, specifically for women and girls. Also, I love to travel, and would like to see more of the beautiful Earth, but I don’t like just being a tourist, and would rather give something back when I visit.
What was your impression of Maximo’s volunteer program?
I was slightly overwhelmed by the amount of organizations that cater to volunteer abroad. But I will say that Maximo’s website was accurate in its representation of the program and what to expect. Volunteers were prepped with a guide book which was an excellent resource, a packing list and information about the culture and climate. The only thing I wasn’t clear about was whether I would be assisting an experienced teacher or working independently. I would have loved to have been able to prepare some lesson plans before I left on my trip.
Tell us about your role at the volunteer project
I ended up being the solo teacher for 8 adults, and I had a partner teacher to teach 12 older children. We taught the children for an hour, where I learned we were most effective when we incorporated lots of movement and activity. When we split up, I had the basic adults and my partner taught the intermediate level adult learners. The adult class was for 1.5 hours, but they were able to apply themselves with focus for longer periods of time. They were also much more highly motivated to learn as their professions depended on knowing English. Most of my adult students were taxi drivers, resort area workers, and others who needed English proficiency in order to keep or get better jobs, so I definitely feel like I made at least a small impact.
Did you face any challenges while volunteering?
This project gave me a great opportunity for an “internship” since I actually completed an online TEFL course before this. It was really challenging to do my lesson plans each day, and to keep the material interesting for both kids and adults, but I got creative and learned how to find worksheets and games online to use each day.
Did the program meet your expectations?
I LOVED my volunteer experience. That was the whole reason for taking this trip. And it didn’t disappoint at all. I felt connected to the community, and I felt like I was able to give back to the community–not just by spending tourist dollars, but by connecting personally and offering a small gift of (slightly) improved English proficiency to people who were amazing and wonderful to get to know. I even made friends with a couple of my students, which was so rewarding!
Tell us about your Mini Adventure program
During our third, and last, week, we joined the mini-adventure program. Each day we took a half-day (or 2/3 day) guided trip. We hiked through Rainmaker mountain across the canopy bridges, we hiked up to Nauyaca Waterfalls, we splashed through the biggest whitewater rapids I had ever paddled through (without turning over!), we explored Manuel Antonio National Park, we ziplined through the forest, and we snorkeled.
Knowing this was likely our only trip to Costa Rica we would be able to take, we added on two additional trips–we spent a weekend in Monteverde, and we went on a guided trip through the mangrove forest. We were treated royally through all of these escapades. We saw just about all the wildlife you would expect to see–a toucan feeding her baby, mccaws, sloths, white-faced capuchin monkeys, iguanas, coatis, caiman, howler monkeys, Jesus Christ lizards, etc.
We had expert guides who were respectful and fun, and extremely knowledgeable. I would not have wanted to miss this part of the trip, as it gave us a chance to better understand the climate, flora and fauna of Costa Rica.