Study Abroad in Costa Rica has Lasting Impact

By Nashea Williams
Junior, College of Agriculture & Life Sciences
Major – Plant and Soil Sciences – Crop Production

Enthusiastic, distraught, and determined are three words that best describe how I felt after leaving the information session for an NC State study abroad program that peaked my interest during my first semester in college. The program in particular was Costa Rica: Exploring Food Security and Sustainability in Agriculture—a course created by my adviser, Associate Professor, and Undergraduate Coordinator for the Department of Crop Science, Dr. Lori Unruh Snyder. I was enthusiastic because of her passion for forming international relationships, and the chance to expand my knowledge of agriculture. I was distraught because I had no idea how I was going to pay for the trip, but most importantly, I was determined to make my participation a reality.

The following spring semester my determination paid off and I was enrolled in the class. We began learning about Dr. Snyder’s 20 years of experience in Central America and her connections to the people we would meet, and the places we would go in Costa Rica. Some of those connections included the Iroquois Community in the Limon province. Our primary objective while in Costa Rica was to do service learning and visit an elementary school in this community to teach the young students about the importance of the biodiversity in their own country, and to help them develop an early understanding and appreciation of agriculture. Before we could each develop our own lesson plans to accomplish this task, we first had a lot to learn.

We started with the basics and learned about the flora and fauna of Costa Rica and the environmental challenges that species face. We studied tropical agriculture and discovered how unsustainable practices are creating those challenges. It was fascinating to learn the historical perspectives of the banana and how the Panama disease threatens the future security of us being able to purchase them at our local grocery store. We also studied how culture impacts food choices, and as a result, the types of crops grown whether they are sustainable or not. Equipped with this knowledge we began developing our lesson plans for the children. I created a biodiversity board game that highlights factors that positively and negatively affect the population status of tropical flora and fauna. It was great that we could learn all about tropical agriculture while at NC State, but once we traveled to Costa Rica we were able to bring this information full circle.

At the University of Costa Rica, we visited a research station where we tasted exotic tropical fruits and learned how students were embracing sustainability by growing veggies in hydroponic systems. We also visited EARTH University, an institution where all of the students study agronomy. Here they also emphasized sustainability by growing hydroponics and designing urban farming systems. Students at both schools had their own agribusiness endeavors and participated in a lot of hands on learning. These students inspired me to change my concentration to Crop Production once I returned to NC State because I felt I would get a more hands on approach. I also began searching for a summer internship to achieve the same goals. In Costa Rica I learned to take charge of my education. At EARTH we also toured the banana farm and got to see firsthand how disease can affect this crop. For me this was motivation to continue to pursue a career in plant breeding because the plight of the bananas showed me why this skill is needed.

We revisited environmental challenges in Costa Rica as well. At the University of International Cooperation we received a stirring lecture on climate change that left us with much to talk about on the bus to our next destination. A visit to a dairy farm taught us that climate change is affecting this industry as well. Milk production and feed intake are affected by the changing conditions. It was also shocking to learn how our love for pineapples in the U.S. causes extreme environmental damage in Costa Rica. High pesticide usage ultimately renders the soil sterile, and chemical contamination of water is common and dangerous to human health. I now try to be more aware of where my food comes from and at what cost. This also lead us to discussions about how important sustainable farm certifications are to our food source, such as Rainforest Alliance.

This international experience only lasted the duration of spring break but the experiences I had each day were enough to alter the course of the rest of my year.”

I was able to advise other students about studying abroad at a national conference for minorities in agriculture, a great friend I made while abroad visited me for Christmas, and I was able to meet the Vice President of the United States, through my interaction with the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation grant received by NC State.  My first piece of advice to any student considering studying abroad is to talk to your professors and find out what opportunities they have or know about for their students. Without Dr. Snyder, my adviser turned mentor, I would have never had these experiences. Secondly, every day while abroad you should take some time to personally reflect. Try to find pieces of yourself in the people you meet, and let them inspire you to make changes in your life and changes in the world. Lastly, you should have fun because studying abroad will be a part of the best moments of your life.


 

The Costa Rica: Exploring Food Security and Sustainability in Agriculture program is now focused on “Exploring Crop and Turfgrass Production in the Tropics.”