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Independent study course takes students to Costa Rica

Students and faculty trip in Costa Rica
Penn State Hazleton students and faculty visited Costa Rica

Finding howler monkeys in rain forests, scampering up volcanoes and overlooking plantations of coffee and pineapples reminded Penn State students in Costa Rica how far they traveled from Hazleton.


But they also examined how Costa Rica addresses immigration, health care and national defense in comparison to the United States.


“We wanted to take the students somewhere quite different to give them the ideas of how people live in other places,” said Eileen Morgan, an English instructor who led the trip to Costa Rica during spring break.


The journey from March 2 to 10 provided the most recent encounter with other cultures for students from Penn State Hazleton. Study abroad opportunities have taken students to France and Belize while students from France, Norway, India and elsewhere have come to Hazleton to study.


Morgan, who led the Belize trip in 2012, selected Costa Rica as this year’s destination because of the contrasts between those Central American nations.


Where Belize is poorer and more sparsely populated, Costa Rica has a capital city, San Jose, with 1.46 million people, and the average Costa Rican earns $12,600 per year.


While those wages are modest by U.S. standards, Costa Ricans have devised economical ways to educate, house and provide healthcare to each other.


Government healthcare, a balanced diet rich in rice, beans and tropical fruits, and lifestyles that lean more toward manual labor and walking than office work and automobiles allow Costa Ricans to attain a life expectancy comparable to that of the United States. And they devote a smaller section of their economy to healthcare.


“You do not see morbidly obese people,” Morgan said. “I think it is because everybody does more walking.”


Outside of San Jose, the group noticed no fast food restaurants.


“It’s rice, beans, fish, chicken, pork and some beef. The fruit is unbelievable,” she said.


“The kids are all running around and playing soccer. You don’t see childhood obesity that we have here.”


The literacy rate is 94.9 percent so children learn to read and write, whether in urban schools that offer a variety of elective courses or the two-room schoolhouse that provide the basics in one village that the group visited.


At the Calle La Luca School near Sarapiqui, students in grades one to three studied in the morning. The fourth through sixth grades met in the afternoon, but the teachers worked all day.


Their two-room schoolhouse was expanding to a third room, which the visitors from Penn State sanded and painted until the primer ran out.


Then they talked with the children, whose first language is Spanish but who study English, and played soccer together, Morgan said.


To finance government-run health care, education and a welfare system that helps low-wage earners afford no-frills homes, Costa Ricans pay high taxes, which Morgan estimated at 43 percent of their income.


But Costa Rican found another to pay for a safety net. In 1949, the nation abolished its military.


“All the money that would have gone to maintaining the army went to social programs,” Morgan said.


A land with no military intrigued Penn State Hazleton student Donna Nelson, who wondered how Costa Rica maintained its borders and kept crime low without an army.

Nelson did a project about immigration for a one-credit course that Morgan taught this spring for students who went to Costa Rica.


Costa Rica and the United States struggle with the same immigration issues, Nelson found.


Children born in Costa Rica are citizens even if their parents aren’t, and the economy relies on illegal immigrants to do laborious work such as picking coffee and pineapples.

“I don’t think they’ve figured it out either,” said Nelson, who lives in Mountain Top and attends college while working and raising a son. She expects to graduate from Penn State Hazleton in the fall with a degree in psychology.


Nicaraguans, she said, make up the largest group of immigrants in Costa Rica, which they can enter simply by crossing the Rio San Juan. Between 300,000 to 500,000 Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica, which has 4.6 million total residents, the CIA World Factbook estimates.  


The tour guide for the Penn State group, however, told Nelson that 1 million Nicaraguans might be present in Costa Rica, and efforts are underway to give legal status to those who came without authorization.


“Costa Rica pretty much has given up on deporting Nicaraguans because it’s a lost cause. That was very interesting to most of the students because of the talk we have in our country,” Nelson said.


The tour guide who taught her about immigration had a four-year college degree, a requirement for her job and a testament to the role of tourism, which ranks second – trailing the computer industry, but outpacing agriculture – in the Costa Rican economy.


Costa Rica welcomes North American tourists. The Penn State students only needed a passport, whereas Nelson said travelers from nearby nations such as Colombia and the Dominican Republic had to get visas as Costa Rica cracked down on drug running and other criminal activity.


The ecosystems of Costa Rica draw tourists, who can shuttle between volcanoes, rainforests, the beach and the mountains in a day’s drive.


“Nature is a beautiful sight, and being in this country made me think about how many people, especially in New York City, do not appreciate it,” Corrin Carroll, a Penn State Hazleton sophomore from Brooklyn, said.


Costa Rica has some 890 types of birds – a couple hundred more than all of Canada and the United States combined.


Students being bused along the edge of a preserve saw scarlet macaws fly. They also noticed varieties of hummingbirds, parrots, ospreys, wood storks and leggy pink waders called roseate spoonbills.


In another stretch of water, the students spied a crocodile estimated to be 15 feet long and 60 years old.


Jaguars lurk in Costa Rican forests although they seldom come into view.


Carroll, however, caught sight of the formerly threatened howler monkey.


She and other students had just started a walk across the hanging bridges near the active Arenal volcano.


“It was amazing because I saw them within a few minutes into the hike, going across the first hanging bridge,” Carroll said.


A few days later, the guide asked the tour bus driver to stop when she spotted howlers in trees across the road.


There was a family unit with several females, a toddler, and an adult male, along with five teenaged monkeys looking for food as they moved from tree to tree, she said.


Carroll, who also saw howler monkeys last year while in Belize, decided to do her class project about them.


While conservationists once listed howler monkeys as near-threatened species, they now say there is little concern about the monkeys dying out.


They have learned to adapt to changes being made in their habitats, like deforestation,” Carroll said. “People in Costa Rica can help conserve areas for the species and spread awareness about what threatens them. People outside of Costa Rica can help by not being a part of the black market because they want the monkeys for pets.”


While watching them, Carroll dwelled on the similarities between howler monkeys and people. They travel together and safeguard each other while foraging.


“The mothers are extremely protective of their babies,” noted Carroll, who someday after graduating with a business degree from Penn State hopes to open a day-care center for children.


Penn State Hazleton students and faculty at a school in Costa Rica.

The group interacted with students at the Calle La Luca School near Sarapiqui.


A scarlett macaw in a tree in Costa Rica.

A scarlett macaw in a tree in Costa Rica.

A howler monkey in a tree in Costa Rica.

A howler monkey in Costa Rica.


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