Polar Vortex Provides Unexpected Surprise for Winter Exchange

“Yo brah, is your flight canceled?” read the text message from my cousin Tuesday morning.  Like any typical teenager, most of what they say is either false, or intentionally false just to see your reaction.  I wasn’t buying. Planes can fly at -50 degrees, so take off at -30 on polar vortex Wednesday shouldn’t be an issue. Besides, we’d just dodged yesterday’s snow day which would have been a bigger concern.  But then he sent me the image from the airline’s website – CANCELLED. Upon reading that, my heart skipped a beat and I may have blacked out for a second.

It’s one thing to get your flight cancelled, but when you are responsible for a group of 80 Costa Rican high school exchange students, now stranded indefinitely in literally the coldest place on earth, you might need an ambulance upon receiving news like this.  This was an event so uprooting that I would later refer to things as before the cancellation and after the cancellation. This exchange was already one for the record books. With so many weather days I was basically making a new itinerary every single day. I was rolling with the punches, snow day here, cold day there, kind of like the Avengers going against Thanos.  You dealt with things as long as the SNAP didn’t happen, until it did.

winter skiers ready
Before the cancellation

I put the phone down, cleared my head, and assessed the situation.  Two of my six schools had already said good-bye to their host families as they were planning on going to the airport after concluding the day’s activities.  I was an hour and a half away from home visiting a high school and I had over half the group at a museum. I needed a command center ASAP and the best I could do was pace the high school hallway and leverage my phone for every last multi-tasking capability it had in order to keep the fire at bay.

First step, get dad on the phone with airline to find out rebooking options while I figure out a place for everyone to live.  I always tell host families that they are what makes the exchange magical and with that in mind I rubbed my magic genie bottle and asked for my first wish.  Luckily, this wish was a softball as families were more than willing to keep them, especially the ones that had just said goodbye. They had barely dried their tears of sorrow when tears of happiness would arrive with the surprise return of their exchange student.  Let’s just say you’d never get that reaction from a Holiday Inn.

Having resolved housing for the time being, I checked in with my dad on rebooking status.  Not. Good. At. All. Turns out, I needed to wait two weeks before I could get all 80 rebooked on the same flight.  With that news I left the high school and departed on the long, cold, windy drive back home through rural Wisconsin. The wind blew the snow across the fields, making it look like an arctic desert.  It was barren, and besides the passing vehicle, there were no signs of human or animal activity. When this story gets made into a movie this drive will have a montage reflecting back on all the fond memories of the exchange before the cancellation.  The music would be set to a ballad, probably from Adele, and the actor playing me will probably be crying, or at least have that glazed over look on their face like they are trying to come to terms with a recent death.

By the time I got home the pity party was over and it was time to get to work.  Armed with a thermos of coffee, I got on the phone with the airline only to promptly get shot down.  No flights with any reasonable space for at least a week(!). After talking up and down the chain of command and pleading my case I was essentially cut loose.  My only option was to take a fraction of a refund and rebook on different airlines. It was too late at night to begin that search and at that moment I looked my wife in the eye and told her surely this is just a bad dream and I will wake up soon.  This can’t be really happening, can it? It was like I was waiting for the director to yell “cut!” or Ashton Kutcher to appear and tell me I’d been punked.

I wanted to fall asleep and just dream for days.  Find some alternate universe and just stay there, ala “Inception”.  Even if I wanted to sleep it was darn near impossible with all the adrenaline surging through me.  I don’t think I slept more than 30 minutes the whole night.

The next day I managed to sneak 15 out on a later flight and slowly began rebooking the rest.  The weather may have been frigid but the phone lines we’re boiling. At one point I had a Skype call going with my trip coordinator, a cell phone connected to the airline and borrowing a second cell phone to take individual inquiries.  First I’d find the flight, check space/price, then call my trip coordinator to see who would take those spaces, then forward all the info to the airline and then work incessantly to convince the Costa Rican parents to agree to the change.

at work
After the cancellation

Convincing was not as simple as it sounds.  With 80 sets of parents it was a challenge to find consensus, with some anxious to get their children out quick as the weather could get even worse, all the way to the other extreme where they wanted to wait longer for the weather to pass.  The literal icing on the cake was that the teacher-chaperones had to be back to start school Monday and some even had meetings Friday. I felt like I was standing in the middle of a circle of people and they were all chucking snowballs at me to get my attention and listen to them.

That was Wednesday.  What followed then were some of the most anxious days of my life.  Now, that I had everything reconfigured I was on edge waiting for the next issue to pop up.  It didn’t take long. When going to verify the bus shuttle schedule to Chicago I was met with a notice that they wouldn’t be sending out buses that night due to the cold.  The last bus would depart in… 30 minutes. I was at least 20 minutes away and had no idea if the students would make it in time. I frantically sent out text after text, call after call all the while en route to the bus stop.  I was rehearsing how I would sweet talk the driver into waiting a bit, or preparing a chase team to track the bus to the next stop. Nobody could miss this bus.  In a sign that the universe wasn’t against me, everyone managed to make it in time.  That was the win I needed. If you’re keeping track, that was my second wish granted.

Fast forward through overnight bus rides, and waiting at airports all the way to Sunday at 10:45pm.  At that moment, I exited the airport in Costa Rica as traveler number 81 and let out such a big sigh I think it registered on the Richter scale.  There’s no greater relief finishing an exchange and returning everyone’s children back to them. On this occasion it couldn’t have been truer.

After an experience like this, some people might swear off doing that ever again.  However, if you ask me, I’d go through it all over again. The experience is too great and all the problems to solve only makes you stronger, right?  Plus, having gone through it once, I’ll be much more prepared for the next polar vortex.  And besides that, I still have one wish left 😉

 

Exchange Brings Novelty, Nostalgia to Thanksgiving

It was darnn chilly getting off that bus. Chillier than I expected or remembered for this time of year.  

Thankfully, my parents were waiting for me and had brought a winter jacket for me, knowing I wouldn’t fully acclimate for a few days.

I don’t normally come home for extended periods in November, however this time I’d brought an exchange group of high school students with me from Costa Rica. They’d stay with local families, visit schools and experience Wisconsin for a few weeks.

If I was having problems, these kids had to be hopeless. It’s one thing to come from Costa Rica, but their region brings out the extremes.  

Just for them to get to the airport is nearly six hours and they can almost get to Panama City faster. Only a few miles from the border with Panama, this region is low lying, hot, humid, and full of rainforests, farms, and minimal population.  

They were going to get a shock to their system from more than just the weather. They were in for experiences all across the board. And so was I.

After spending the first night with their host families, I was interested to hear their reactions.

There was the usual, “Wow, the family is so friendly.” or “The dog is so funny.” and of course the “IT’S SO COLD,” but there is always something that uniquely draws their attention. The most interesting comments I heard referenced having a lower-door freezer and the astounding dishwasher.

Freezers do exist in Costa Rica, but they are almost always upper door freezers, whereas unless you are upper-upper class, or an expatriate, a dishwasher is a complete luxury. They were amazed at its simplicity and the fact that you “don’t even get your hands wet.”

I silently chuckled to myself hearing those comments as I had never really noticed those differences before.  I then overheard one student saying he had been cold at night. I asked him if he had enough blankets and he said he wasn’t given any.  Hmm, that couldn’t be right.

cheesehead model
On Wisconsin!

I decided to follow up with the family, and they were just as puzzled. They said the bed had various sheets and blankets all tucked in.

All tucked in. All tucked in. That was it. The student had never thought to untuck the comforter and sleep under it.

After I thought about it, it made complete sense.

I know where I live in Costa Rica, I rarely need more than a light sheet to cover up with at night, and that is mostly to keep the mosquitoes off. I also know that bedrooms are more focal points of homes in Costa Rica.  

It’s not uncommon to walk into a home and have a bedroom right off the entrance. Because of this they will put comforters on the bed to dress it up and sleep on top of it with a light sheet.  

That’s exactly what happened and is why the student never bothered to untuck the bed!

Don’t get me wrong, these students were modern.  This was not like the Amish coming to the big city.

I’m sure they dominated their hosts in Snapchats per capita and could overwhelm absolutely anyone at the mall, especially since they happened to be in town for Black Friday.

In addition to that utterly American event, this group also got to experience Thanksgiving, a holiday that has no Costa Rican equivalent.

Due to school schedules, we had never been able to exchange during a holiday, and this is what families (and I) enjoyed the most. Having those extra days off really gave them a chance to get to know their student and was highly emphasized in their feedback.  

one inch snowman
Juuust enough snow…

The opportunity to sleep in, take in sporting events and visit family was an intended consequence families took full advantage of. They shared tons of Thanksgiving photos/videos, Badger football/hockey games, cheesehead modeling and the world’s largest snowman you can make with an inch of snow.

It was also a bit of a homecoming for me.  Thanks to the exchange students and their host families, I was excited to experience Thanksgiving as well.

I honestly can’t remember the last time I was home for Thanksgiving (probably 10+ years), and there were more than a few relatives surprised to see me.  I’m also rarely home for Christmas, so when I do visit, it’s typically not when people get together.

On my mom’s side, we were only missing my sister and cousin, which is probably the closest we’ve gotten in a long time to having everyone together. It’s no small feat when we span states, countries, and continents apart.

In all, I spent almost a month at home, which really only felt like two weeks. I could never quite shake the cold, I made a half-hearted attempt at raking leaves (if there is snow on the ground, that’s just embarrassing) and we narrowly missed a major snowstorm getting out of Chicago.  

Maybe November isn’t what it used to be, or maybe I’ve forgotten what it’s like, but hearing the stories from the families and exchange students brought a lot of novelty to the visit and provoked a lot of nostalgia.  

There might not be as much nostalgia for my next visit in late January, but there is already a winter jacket in my suitcase, and I look forward to the exchange students providing the novelty.   

-Dustin

Dustin is the director and founder of Costa Rica Frika.  Originally from Southern Wisconsin, he specializes in providing immersion experiences to/from Costa Rica via exchanges, volunteering and interning.

Pura Vida in San Ramon

Hello everyone!

I am Julia (get to know me a little more here) and I am going to be a junior when I get back to my university in the Fall. I am currently here in interning for this awesome organization as the Social Media and Marketing manager. So far, I am loving the ‘Pura Vida’ culture. The food is amazing, the nature is breathtaking, and the language is just a tad bit difficult. Nevertheless, this past week I have already gotten the chance to see such a large chunk of the culture. I’ve visited many of the non-profit organizations in the area, the city center, airport, restaurants, schools, banks, and anything else you can think of.

So far there are quite a bit of differences that I have noticed while living here, but I will only discuss the two most important, food and school.

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Two volunteers, from Britain, found a mango this size in the grocery store!

I swear I am one of the biggest foodies, so every time I travel I always look to the food culture, whether that be by trying a new dish, or learning how to cook a traditional dish (fingers crossed I learn one here). This being so, I’ve gone to many restaurants so far, and had a couple of home-cooked meals, as well.  The first thing I immediately noticed here is that Ticos love their rice and beans. Here at least one of your meals in the day have to include beans and rice, and sometimes it might even be breakfast! Another staple to the Costa Rican diet are plantains, fried or raw. They have made grocery shopping a little bit confusing because I want to buy them,  thinking they are huge bananas. But I’ve made that mistake twice, and I never want to willingly bite into a raw plantain again.  Plantains are not the only fruit that humongous here, but so are avocados and mangos

DSC_0308
The school’s geese

Another cultural difference I’ve noticed is in the schools. I’ve gotten the opportunity to observe these differences because two volunteers arrived this week to work for a high school here. Firstly, this school is so different from public high schools in the U.S. due to the fact that it only provides specialized tracks. Most of them are focused around agriculture, but there is also one track that is English for working at call centers. This being so, there are many animals at the school, both farm and wild.

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Talking to a class about the differences between England and Costa Rica.

Within the classroom, the biggest difference I noticed was the way the class learning was structured. The best way to explain it would be as a friendly conversation between students, rather than a lecture or class. It also seems as if there is also never a moment where no chit chat is going on. Compared to the U.S. , and even to England, this seemed crazy to me! I am so used to strict teachers, and a zero whispering rule in elementary or high school classrooms. But, I can see the benefits to the style in Costa Rica. Their teaching style allows them to create better relationships with their teachers, and not be afraid to ask them for help. I know that when I was in high school, I would always be scared of the strictest teachers, but here that is less of a problem. Personally, I know that transitioning to this kind of school would be difficult, but I think it is necessary that I saw this difference. It is these kinds of differences that traveling and cultural immersion experiences give you, that make you grow the most as a person, and learn the most about yourself.

 

 

Before coming here, I took an online accelerated summer course about intercultural communication, and if I were to have walked away with only one lesson it would have been that immersing yourself in a different culture is the best way to learn about yourself, and others. Already during my short time here, I’ve noticed this. Therefore, I am excited to see what other differences I see during my time in this beautiful country and the to feel the effect they will have on my identity and knowledge of Latin American countries’ cultures.

¡Hasta la próxima semana!

Bend But Don’t Break Teaching in Costa Rica

Costa Rica.  The Central American symbol of progress and stability in a region historically known for chaos.  You may have heard of it as a tourist destination.  Fly in, take the tourist bus straight to the all inclusive resort and be shuttled around to places the country wants you to see.

Just like a coffee bean has various layers of skin, Costa Rica can be peeled back one by one to reveal its deeper qualities.  When you sift through all the “Save the Americans” propaganda, and go beyond the beaches and rainforests, you’ll find a culture very dedicated to becoming much more than volcanoes and sloths.

Case in point: Education.  A long way from the standard US public school you’ll find quite a contrast in Latin America. Many school systems lack any kind of technological resources, are overcrowded, have teachers that are untrained and overworked, and the majority work with rural or impoverished communities where school is not seen as a priority.

Enter Costa Rica.  Without having to support a military for over half a century, the resources available for public use have been extensive in comparison to other area countries.  Thanks to a visit from Teachers2Teachers International, a non-profit US organization dedicated to revolutionizing STEM training for teachers all over the world, those differences were put into context and many generalizations need not apply when it comes to education in Costa Rica. 

The mission was to spend a week immersing ourselves at a rural Costa Rican school observing, sharing, and reflecting on the school system.  The school serves a community of about 150 families with children grades 1-6.  Hardly a walk in the park for the teachers, they all teach two grades alternating mornings and afternoons.  A normal day starts at 7am and stretches to 5pm.  And that’s just class time.  Where they find time to lesson plan and complete the many extra curricular activities assigned to them was beyond understanding at times.  Even for them.

Our schedule was very day to day as our visit fell during “fair season”.  During the week we were there, there was an art and a science fair, plus spelling bee practice for the school’s regional qualifier.  Not to mention the principal was replaced two days before our arrival.  By day three the custodian had become the go to person in getting information.  With interruptions seemingly a way of life, we were quickly turned on to the art of improvising, which must loosely translate to pura vida

Our host school fields three full time teachers and they are stretched every which way to meet the requirements that all schools are held to, regardless of size.  That meant one teacher leaving her 5th graders working on a project by themselves so she could do administrative tasks in the office.  A larger school would have a secretary, but here that responsibility gets passed around.  It also meant one group didn’t have class one day because the teacher had to accompany another group of students to a fair at a different school.  It also meant we only saw the new principal once the whole time we were there.  It wasn’t like he was at the school either, he wasn’t.  Whether running paperwork around or attending meetings, the Ministry of Education seemed to keep somebody on the road running errands.

Having digested the shock and awe at the “organized chaos” we were uncertain we would be afforded the opportunity to share with the teachers.  Our moments may have been brief, however the engagement was sincere and I think everyone would agree they took at least as much with them as they left.  It didn’t take long for them to put us on our heels with a long division method that was familiar in operation, but completely backwards in structure.  It was like learning to read all over again, but this time reading right-to-left instead of left-to-right.

Where’s the remainder?

On a classroom level, we were also able to contribute to the learning process.  One of our initial observations was that students spent a lot of time sitting and reciting/reading information.  Luckily, the classrooms were equipped with flat screen TVs and access to the internet, but besides that it was hard to identify much innovation in student engagement.  That observation lasted until day two when the teacher turned to us and offered us her group for 30 minutes.  With the theme of the week to improvise, we knew we couldn’t let the moment pass, even if we didn’t have anything prepared.  It just so happened, we had shared an animal book with an adjoining tangram activity previously with the teacher and it fit right into the science review she was doing with the class that day.

tangram activity with children
Tangrams to the rescue!

Now having experienced and adapted to improvisation, we negotiated right then for the teacher to give us another section to prepare and present an activity the next day.  That day, not only did we get the class engaged in the activity, we had the teacher actively leading the activity with us.  Who thought division/multiplication practice could be so fun?

By the end of the week we were more agile than a goats in a tree in getting our objectives met.  This was my first experience on a trip like this and while it could have been smoother, I don’t think it would have been the same had it been.  One of our participants attended an art festival, another tutored the spelling bee champ, and one teacher even went next door to the high school to see how pura vida they were.

Despite all the juggling, it was reassuring to see the technology available at the school (they had a computer lab and taught programming), the manageable class sizes (<20), and the preparation of the teachers.  In Costa Rica you are required to have a university bachelor´s degree before becoming a teacher, which is a luxury in other parts of Central America.         

I think you would be stressed to find another rural school in Central America with these conditions and you could probably rank them right up with some schools in developed countries.  In my 10+ years in Costa Rica I’ve never been as involved with a school as I was on this exchange.  With the added expertise of T2T-I the sharing was much more focused and found common ground with a lot of the challenges teachers all over the world face.

teacher group shot
¡Exito = Success!

Overall, it was a very pleasant experience and a departure from the norm from what you usually think about when Costa Rica is mentioned.  When bringing colleagues together, countries and cultures apart, those extra obstacles make the experience real and the labor much more rewarding, especially since you’re educating future world citizens at a crucial point in their lives.     

Like a 7-layer cake, not all the sweetness is visible on the surface, and you shouldn’t be afraid to bite down and see what else the country has to offer.  You never know what you’ll find.  We found education, but have you tried Costa Rican coffee??

   

Cultural Exchange Brings Tingling Feelings to Life

AAAHHHH!!  Was the shriek I heard coming from the other side of the bushes.  This was no ordinary scream, as we were in an area surrounded by jaguars, pumas, and bobcats.  And by no ordinary scream, I mean it didn’t sound quite like an animal attack, but something else.  I rounded the corner to find my cousin, amongst other students, taken aback by the “massive” spider they had just spotted right outside the jaguar enclosure.    

For a group of Wisconsin teens on their first visit to Costa Rica, any creature would appear “massive” in fake spider on armcomparison to what they are used to seeing and this spider sure qualified.  Thankfully, they didn’t scream every time they saw a new insect/animal or they would have been hoarse by day two, but there was a lot of “new” for this group to take in.

Our spider encounter at the Costa Rican zoo we visited that day was just one of the many cultural experiences these students had over the course of their cultural exchange trip to Costa Rica.  When you add that to the cockroaches, gecko lizards, mutant mosquitoes and the occasional rat/mouse there’s already a lot to experience not even counting human interaction.  This was a very special group of exchange students as they had received Costa Rican exchange students in their homes January and would now live with the same students in Costa Rica.  

Over the course of two weeks, the students visited the host students high school, attended classes, participated in educational and recreational activities, and most importantly, were immersed into the Costa Rican culture.

When I talk about cultural exchanges, I always refer to “tingling” moments or sensations where cultural interaction is taking place, but there is no good way to describe the feeling as it is not something you can detect physically (unless you’re screaming).  What’s fascinating is everyone experiences these moments differently for a variety of reasons and there is no telling what their main take aways will be.

Observing these students over the course of the exchange I noticed a lot of these tingling moments. There were card games the US students shared and there was salsa dancing the Costa Ricans shared.  There was our trip to the capital city San José, punctuated be getting stranded (but not soaked) under a torrential downpour and a visit to the main central market of San José.  There was also the unique experience of living through a power outage in all of Central America.  Besides that, there were many great memories created on the other excursions such as the beach island trip, where Wisconsinites and Costa Ricans could be seen kayaking, playing volleyball, and having a good time chilling out in the jacuzzi.      

dave with host familyThe little things were also noted.  My cousin, for one, was relieved despite his limited Spanish, that there were still Costa Ricans that spoke naturally slow enough for him to understand.  There were also students very keen to pick up vocabulary and some carried around a notebook to be ready at a moment’s notice.  Even the teacher/chaperone had a list of different foods to try that was made for her by students at the high school.  (I was curious to hear from her what toad’s soup tasted like.)  

These were only the things that I could observed.  The other aspect of this trip was all the opportunities the students had on the weekends and evenings with their host families.  Even though we insisted the students only spoke Spanish when together, we could rest assured that they were being forced to try out the language while at home.  For the higher level students, this was their time to speak the language freely without feeling as if they were being graded.  For the lower level students this was their chance to see just how far they could get while having their host sibling as a backup should they get stuck trying to communicate something to their host parents.

For me (and them) it was a big accomplishment completing both stages of the exchange.  The only thing I’ve ever regretted about international travel was not starting sooner (and I started when I was 20).  These students now not only have the international cultural travel experience at a young age, but they also have international life long friends that will no doubt continue to be resources for them.  There was lots of sadness at the going away party, however I don’t foresee this being the last time they are together.     

I still keep in touch with my original host family from 11 years ago and rarely do I miss a celebration.  Even being fully integrated into my wife’s Costa Rican family doesn’t take away from that first experience and bond I’ll always have.  I visited a lot of countries after first coming to Costa Rica, but no matter how much I enjoyed the other places, it was never enough to overcome the experience I had from my first time in Costa Rica.  

The future is bright for these students as it’s anyone’s guess where this experience will take them.  I ended up in Costa Rica, however maybe they will never return to Costa Rica This exchange though will no doubt give them the confidence to take other risks putting them out of their comfort zone.  Let’s just hope those risks don’t involve jumping into a jaguar enclosure.  That would provoke one extraordinary scream.  

group photo at park

Why Teach a Language When You Can Share It

Dustin Dresser

When I graduated high school and then college, I never imagined I’d set foot back in a classroom.  After spending over two-thirds of my life in a classroom at that point, the last thing I wanted to do was end up back there as a teacher.  Aside from a few classes that let you run around (gym), build stuff (tech ed) and the occasional science experiments,  I can only recall sitting, listening, reading, and writing while at school.  Now, with all the opportunities in front of me as a young adult, why would I resign myself to more of the same things I already knew and was familiar with, except now I’d be expected to teach and grade as well.

Something strange though happened to me once I graduated and transitioned to adulthood.  Once I became knowledgeable about something, my mindset changed.  There came a point where I felt a desire to share my knowledge with others.  I just needed an outlet that didn’t restrict me to a classroom.  

My path in (and out) of the classroom led me on a bit of a journey.  In my case, I got out of school right as the country was headed for recession.  With my job prospects minimal, I got on a plane to Spain to…. teach classroom English.  This was clearly not my first choice out of school, but it triggered an expertise which eventually led to a passion. 

Well, I didn’t last long at my first school.  I got caught “teaching” when I realized I wanted to be sharing.   I felt the restraints of the four walls, desks, and marker boards holding me back.  For me, I realized I was driven by real world experiences.  After school, I was going to buy groceries, play soccer at the plaza and hang out with friends, all in Spanish.  I had the upper hand being forced to use the language and learn the culture, and that was what frustrated me in the classroom.  Students weren’t engaging because they saw me as only 50min/day for a semester for something they’d never need (according to them).  They couldn’t picture themselves ever traveling or living anywhere where they’d have to speak a foreign language or learn a new culture.  For me and my student’s sake, we needed an outlet that took us outside the box of the classroom.      

I didn’t discover how to effectively do that until I moved to Costa Rica and began moonlighting as a cultural exchange coordinator.  Once I was able to take the “room” out of the classroom and put students in real world situations, I began to share a passion.  Gone were the textbooks, worksheets and role plays.  Now, you really had to know how to ask for the bathroom, or where to catch the bus.  The beauty of these exchanges was that the teachers were still there, but were now sharing, coaching and supporting the students through the experience.  I cherished this experience as I was finally sharing knowledge and the student response was incredible.  

Sharing is teaching, but teaching is not always sharing, especially when it comes to language teaching.  The first school I taught at I was given a text book and a school year to get through it.  Anyone forced through such a dry system without any leeway for creativity will not last.  This is what I believe separates good foreign language (FL) teachers from great FL teachers.  FL teachers that are in it for the long haul, realize early on that they are sharers and if they can’t modify their classroom or motivate their students they aren’t going to last.  The FL teacher has the advantage over other subjects where travel can have a huge impact on student motivation, especially via cultural exchanges.  This is where all the classroom work pays off and students realize what all their studies were leading them up to.  The impact doesn’t end just there.  Regardless of their experience, they’ll be more motivated in class knowing there is a use for foreign languages outside the Department of Education requirements.  The teachers though, stand to reap the most rewards as motivated students will encourage teachers and allow them to share instead of “teach” in the classroom.   

What started out as a side project for me has now morphed into Costa Rica Frika, an immersion experience organization specializing in cultural exchanges.  I’ve found my niche that allows me to share a passion and having such a strong student response further fuels my motivation to continue sharing it.  This motivation has led me to expand and work directly with teachers as well.   

FL teachers: How do you share your passion?  What do you do outside the classroom that creates motivation inside the classroom?  Please share your thoughts!

Dustin Dresser is from Wisconsin and now lives in Costa Rica.  If you’re a foreign language teacher looking for ways to share your passion via cultural exchanges, join him on the Costa Rica Frika Teacher Exploratory Exchange this summer.  ¡Pura vida!

All Abroad: My Immersion Experience (Guest Speaker)

I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this.  The plane had just touched down in San José, Costa Rica and here I was, all by myself with my life packed into two little roller bags about to exit customs and head out into the unknown.  I was met with the blur of what seemed like a thousand paparazzi shouting at me, hands in the air, waving signs and trying to get my attention.  I was dumbfoundedly looking around for my name, when all of a sudden a man came up to me, said something very fast and proceeded to grab my bags and walk away…

As they say “the rest was history”, or was it?  To hear inspiring personal travel abroad stories, cultural immersion experiences, and exchange anecdotes, join or invite Dustin to speak to your group/schoolperson with 2 dogs.

Speaking dates are available year round (virtual) and in person dates are subject to availability.

Upcoming in person speaking opportunities in Wisconsin:

Oct. 24th – Nov. 3rd, 2016

Jan. 23rd – Feb. 1st, 2017 (exchange groups)

For more information contact us

My First (Official) Cultural Exchange

cultural exchange shirt with signatures

I was excited for the 1:30am wake up call.  It didn’t matter much since the anticipation was so great to begin with I knew I wasn’t going to sleep much anyways.  Today was day 1 of the Costa Rica – Wisconsin high school exchange.  18 hours from now we’d be in a snow frosted parking lot, temperatures in the teens, and students darting off the bus into their host families arms not only to greet them after months of emails and phone calls but to receive hats, gloves, and winter jackets, all scarce in the tropics.

For me this was a homecoming exchange in the fact that my alma mater and hometown was playing host to this exchange.  With them providing the families that would adopt the visiting students for the next two weeks and inviting them to school for a few days, the exchange had its firm foundation from which to work from.  Even my parents were delighted to be hosting their son and daughter in law for two weeks.  From there students could explore their surroundings and see all that snowy Wisconsin had to offer.  It didn’t take long for us to hit the ground running.

Just our second night we hosted a welcome event for the exchange families and community to come together and get to know the students.  Very few anticipated the number of interested community members that would turn out for this event and almost

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Big news for small town 🙂

no one expected the local newspaper to be there taking pictures and interviewing.  I was however very proud of the group as they showed no fear in making a small presentation about Costa Rica to the audience and even treated them to a mini salsa recital.

 

With cultural exchange activities and English language practice being our objectives we took in everything I’d been lacking since my childhood and then some.  Sledding and ice skating were at the top of our list but even activities such as ice fishing were prominent memories for the group.  And by group I include myself and a lot of the host parents/siblings as not all of us grew up ice fisherman. We pretended to stand on the ice and look knowledgeable during the demonstration to not lose face in front of the students.  Between these events, schools visits and family time the experience ended up turning into one of a lifetime.

I couldn’t help but notice the bonding going on between the local and visiting students.  Watching them explain how to skate or how to get maximum velocity on a sled was emblematic of the whole experience.  Every day the students would get together to share stories and funny experiences they had.  The amazement of the lack of rice and beans present in a Wisconsinites diet, the wonderment of how cows stay warm in the winter and how ice could form so strong that someone could walk on it, let alone drive a car on it were just some of the conversations had between students and their hosts.

Some people wondered why we chose to come in January.  Costa Ricans know what summer is all about but why not choose spring, or fall?  Well to begin with we were limited

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First time for everything!

due to the summer break in Costa Rica being Dec/Jan but to find the most diversity and biggest departure from the norm winter is what it has to be.  None of the Costa Ricans had seen snow before this trip and I don’t feel a bit of regret facilitating this experience.  Wisconsin does not have coffee plantations, volcanos, rainforests, or beaches that are within an hours drive of each other so we have to get creative with own nature and natural beauty.  Sure you’ll find a big enough cultural difference but the difference in climate is literally the icing on the cake of a winter exchange to Wisconsin.

 

I don’t believe the impact of this experience really set in until it was actually over.  We had gotten into this routine and we felt like it was never going to end.  But it did and the realization was almost instant.  When we boarded the bus to head back to the airport my

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Who could forget this?

phone began to explode with host parents and students expressing their gratitude and happiness with the experience.  As that was going on the Costa Rican parents were anxiously messaging us about travel plans and flight arrivals. 14 hours after bidding farewell to Wisconsin the students were back in the arms of overjoyed parents.

 

I think back now to the first meeting I had with parents in the fall and all their quizzical looks and even the parent who point blank asked me if I had children (I don’t).  Leaving that meeting casted some doubt on how I could ever convince a parent it was safe for them to send their child with me to a foreign country and to stay with a family they had never met before.  I could stand before them and give as much assurance as I could but until I have my own no one is really giving me the benefit of the doubt which is why host families make the exchanges so magical.

Whenever I talk to students and host families I can’t stress how important they are in the success of an exchange.  Months and years later a student doesn’t remember falling while ice skating or building a snowman but they do remember who they were with.  You might go on vacation or take an educational tour but there is no better way to learn about the place you are visiting than experiencing it with a local.  These bonds, created with the goal of learning one’s culture stay with us much longer than a week spent at an all inclusive resort where asking for a cerveza from the wait staff qualifies as culture.

With technological advances students and families can live the experience through each other, even if they are not actually on the exchange.  Every school we visited and every

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Hi mom, I’m on Wisconsin!

activity we did there was an opportunity to snap a photo and share it with all of the Costa Rican parents.  Watching a hockey game, participating in class, or even eating at food court, parents were able to see what we were up to and that was very reassuring for them.  Combining that with the pre-trip communication they had with their host family via email and video calls everyone felt confident with the trip and this was the backing I needed to convince parents my empty nest was not a cause for alarm.

 

At the end of the two week whirlwind trip I could have slept through four alarms having maxed out all the energy in my body.  As I write this now a month has gone by since the exchange ended and recalling all these fond memories provokes the same excitement all over again.  This inaugural exchange couldn’t have gone better and I’m hopeful to carry over these positive vibes to many more exchanges in the future.

Taking the Costa Rican out of Costa Rica

See you later San Ramon…..  Follow us the next two weeks as we take 11 Costa Rican students and 2 teachers on a cultural exchange trip to Wisconsin.  They’ll be visiting high schools and experiencing the best that Wisconsin winter has to offer.  Departing 80 degree Costa Rica at 5:30am and should see the snow by midday.  Should be interesting….