Social work students learn to embrace 'pura vida' on their trip to Costa Rica

October 25, 2016


Increasing students' cultural competence is an important goal of the Colorado State University School of Social Work. Now, through a new international experience, students have the opportunity to learn about language, culture, and social work practices in another country. In August of this year, eleven social work students participated in an education abroad program in Costa Rica. Marie Zamzow, an instructor and adviser in the School of Social Work, accompanied the students on the trip.

The two-week trip was an immersive program designed to help students gain a deeper understanding of international social work. It was coordinated in collaboration with the Academia Centro Americana de Espanol, a language academy located in Costa Rica that teaches Spanish by means of experiential learning. During the two weeks, the social work students learned the Spanish language and explored many aspects of Central American culture. The trip allowed students to gain exposure to diverse communities and further develop their cultural competencies.

The first week of the Costa Rica trip was focused on language and cultural immersion, allowing the students to build a foundation of knowledge that would make the rest of the trip more valuable. The students stayed in host homes and learned to speak Spanish at their own level in small classes of one teacher to three students.

In the second week of the trip, the students visited two social work agencies, including a domestic violence agency and a children's home. By visiting these Costa Rican agencies, students became aware of the different ways in which Costa Rica implements their social service systems. They were able to consider the diversity present in social work practices and evaluate these practices objectively.

In addition to the educational opportunities present throughout the trip, students had the opportunity to explore some of the most quintessential parts of Costa Rican culture and tourism. They went on weekend excursions to the beach, visited old artisan villages, took dance and cooking classes, went rafting and ziplining, and traveled to a tropical rainforest.

On a trip filled with many overall positive experiences, Zamzow was struck by one aspect of the culture, "I think the most impactful part of the trip was that, as a community, Costa Ricans have chosen a different path for themselves. They embrace 'pura vida,' which means 'pure' or 'good life.' Their overall friendliness and happiness is reflected in this simple saying," she said.

By being completely immersed in Costa Rican culture, the students were able to embrace "pura vida" and explore the Costa Rican way of life. They began to understand social work on a global level and gained a great amount of cultural awareness.

"The trip really made me keep an open mind because there are a lot of things that Costa Rica does differently than the United States," said Ariel Cisneros, a social work student who took part in the trip. "It is a trip I would recommend to students because although two weeks is not much time, I still gained a great amount of experience and learned a lot."

Zamzow hopes the two-week trip will have a lasting impact on the lives of each one of the participating students. "The experience inspired a sense of cultural humility that allowed students to overcome an ethnocentric mindset and gain the knowledge necessary to successfully implement more culturally inclusive practices as future social work professionals," she said.

This class is run through education abroad and is open to all helping profession majors. For more information, contact Marie Zamzow in the School of Social Work.

The School of Social Work is part of CSU's College of Health and Human Sciences.

Click here for a video of the Costa Rica trip.

More photos from the trip:

SSW Costa Rica 2016

Story by Kristin Breakell

Contact:  Marie Zamzow

Telephone:  970-491-3120