Holding true to TCU’s mission to create global leaders, study abroad opportunities in Costa Rica allow students to gain a better understanding and appreciation of tropical countries.
Since 2002, a group of between 12 to 14 students spend their Maymester hiking, conducting experiments and learning about real-world application of environmental issues.
“I was looking on the TCU summer study abroad programs website and saw that there was an environmental program,” said Shelly Laroche, a sophomore green marketing major. “I am going to Costa Rica this summer and hope to gain more knowledge of the sustainable practices used in Costa Rica and how I can use that to help better the environment.”
This independent trip focuses on geology, environmental science, culture and history. It is interdisciplinary and also allows students to enjoy the natural beauty of Costa Rica through activities like zip lining through the forests, hiking volcanoes and swimming under waterfalls.
Students stay at a research station in the middle of the jungle.
“Specifically to the field station, being able to stay in the middle of the rainforest was the most beneficial part,” said Lakota Cheek, a senior biology major. “It really opened my eyes to the importance of conservation efforts.”
The trip works directly with a research station with which TCU has a long-term lease agreement. The university has utilized this station since 2006.
“One of our guides on a trip in 2006, who was also a National Geographic guide, had a friend who owned a farm in the forest and was trying to rehabilitate it,” said Dr. Michael Slattery, the director of the Institute for Environmental Studies. “He wanted to build an educational center there and it seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
After the trip, Slattery and the group of students who attended the trip wrote a proposal to the university to get a grant sponsorship. The student-led proposal was approved and a fund to complete and utilize the research station was implemented.
“We first used the research station in 2008,” Slattery said. “It gives students the opportunity to put real world application to issues discussed in class and read about in textbooks.”
The Maymester trip is not the only opportunity for students to experience the research station. A tropical biology course offered in the spring spends spring break at the station doing ecological work and focusing on specific issues and experiments.
The research station lends itself to a wide variety of learning experiences. Students partake in experiential hiking, which exposes students to different levels of the ecosystem and the forest canopy.
Students spend about a day and a half learning about forest structure by going out and running tests and experiments, such as studying the diameter of tree trunks. They also spend time studying the rivers that run through the forests, from mapping their tracks to understanding the way they benefit the surrounding area.
In addition to academic trips, other TCU programs such as Frog Camp have taken advantage of TCU’s connections in Costa Rica. This past summer, students had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica before they even took their first class at TCU.
“Costa Rica was a unique experience because it took the Horned Frog experience to a completely different location,” said Margaret Boschini, a first-year theatre major. “After embarking on such a huge adventure in Costa Rica, going off to college seemed a lot easier and less intimidating.”
Campers spent a week exploring the forests, hiking volcanoes and engaging in local community service projects. Campers also had the opportunity to experience the local culture, such as touring the Costa Rican Chocolate Factory and participating in a chocolate tasting.
In addition, the camp visited the research station to introduce students to the academic side of college.
“TCU’s research station in Costa Rica is honestly amazing,” Boschini said. “Most people on campus probably don’t even know about the work that we are doing there, which is a shame because it really is astounding. When we went there we got to tour the entire area. Then we got to help out by hanging signs up along different forest trails.”
Trung Nguyen, the assistant director of the First Year Experience, supervised the 24 campers that went to Costa Rica this past summer along with four student facilitators and three faculty/staff members.
“One of the most unique experiences is that students get to learn about the cycle of farm to table,” Nguyen said. “At the end of the experience, they have a dinner where all the ingredients are from the farm and some of the plants that they actually harvested are turned into sides for dinner.”
There are ways to get involved with the research station without traveling to Costa Rica. A new environmental initiative led by TCU students fundraises here in Fort Worth to help save trees in Costa Rica.
“In 2007, our guide took us on a white water rafting trip and taught us about the state of extinction that the Green Macaw, an endangered bird, was facing,” Slattery said. “The students on the trip felt so passionately about it that they wanted to have a part in the effort to save the bird.”
The Green Macaw nests solely in the Almendro Tree, which is very popular in crafting furniture. Farmers in Costa Rica chop the trees down and sell them to large companies.
“Each tree costs $500 to buy,” Slattery said. “Students raise money here and when we go down to the station, they get to present the final check. Right now, we own five trees and each of them has a TCU plaque on it.”
The environmental club on campus hosts many fundraisers throughout the year. Members of the TCU community can also help sponsor trees.
While TCU has made significant strides in strengthening the university’s resources and opportunities in Costa Rica, there are still big plans for the future.
“The first priority is just reaching financial stability,” Slattery said. “We want to secure funding for the station and establish an endowment that would offer scholarships to students who can’t afford to go.”
In addition, Slattery said the university is also hoping to broaden usage of the station to many organizations across campus. Ideas such as nature writing and field immersion have been discussed.
Slattery said the opportunities in Costa Rica epitomize TCU’s global vision. By giving students the resources to not only study in a foreign country but also make a significant impact, the research station offers a unique learning opportunity.
“Our access to the research station places us amongst only a small handful of universities that have facilities in the tropics,” Slattery said. “I truly believe that it is one of the things that makes TCU a great university.”