GoAbroad Interview

Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss - Costa Rica Director

Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss - Costa Rica Director

Janiva Cifuentes-Hiss fulfills her personal purpose leading life-changing journeys throughout the planet. Over the past decade, she has led study abroad, gap year, and volunteer programs throughout Central and South America, East Africa, India, and Spain. Her adventures have taken her to learn with Indigenous communities in the Amazon, practice yoga on the banks of the Ganges, vision quest in Patagonia, safari in Tanzania, and trek the ancient ruins of Tikal and Machu Picchu. She enjoys sharing her passion for meditation, yoga, permaculture design, and nature with her students. She has served as Costa Rica Director with Sol Education Abroad since 2007.

You grew up in Washington state and often visited family in Colombia, how did you get connected to Sol Education Abroad?

I first came to Costa Rica in 2006 for a one-year internship in sustainable development. In 2007, I connected with Brent Hunter and Esteban Lardone, the founders of SOL Education Abroad. Nine years later, I am just as thrilled and honored to be a part of the SOL family as I was on the very first day I started.

I consider my position with SOL my “dream job”. My personal background flows naturally into my professional career as study abroad director. Being mixed heritage of Colombian and European/Irish-American roots, I’ve always lived in the fluid borderlands of identity, flitting between, melding together, and incorporating cultures and languages, a skill I apply every day as study abroad director in Latin America.

Hiking in Poás Volcano National Park

Janiva leading a cloud forest hike in Poás Volcano National Park - Photo Credit: SOL Mate Aleah Bowie

You studied abroad in Spain and have spent a good amount of time in Japan, how do these experiences contribute to your current work in international education?

In my hometown of Olympia, Washington I grew up with exchange students in my home, mostly from Japan and Taiwan, soaking up world cultures and languages from a very young age.

In high school, my friends and I founded a club called Cultural Awareness Committee and organized an annual international dinner bringing together foods and cultural performances from around the world. My first formal job in high school was as a cultural ambassador for Japanese exchange students in my hometown, leading activities and day trips. Looking back, I’ve always been fascinated by the diversity of human cultures and ethnicities.

What does a typical week as Costa Rica Director look like?

One of the things I love most about being the Costa Rica director is that no two days are alike. Every week combines an array of volunteer opportunities, cultural activities, and excursions to the most beautiful, adventurous, and authentic attractions in the country. Students can choose to do what they love, whether it’s teaching English at the local kindergarten, caring for abandoned cats and dogs at the animal shelter, spending time with the elderly, planting native trees to offset our carbon footprint, or painting murals in our local park.

Our cultural activities are designed with care and perfected by student feedback. Student favorites include our traditional cooking class, latin dance classes, city tours, market fruit-tasting, coffee tour, and wild animal rescue center.

On weekends you’ll find us flying through the rainforest in the zip line canopy tour and white water rafting on tropical rivers. Between these diverse activities there is a lot of planning, logistics, academics, problem-solving, and cross-cultural communication.

La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa Rica

SOL excursion to La Fortuna Waterfall in the tropical rainforest - Photo Credit: SOL Mate Katie North

You have an academic background in Latin American studies, how do you use your knowledge and skills in this subject to further Sol’s Costa Rica program?

My background in liberal arts and specialization in Latin American studies at Pomona College prepared me to provide historical context and a framework with which to analyze the forces at play in Central America today. At a macro level, it is vital to examine how U.S. media, military intervention, consumer culture, and corporate globalization are sweeping through the region at an astounding pace. New McDonalds are popping up at every corner, and Costa Rica’s consumption of imported products, music, movies, and brands seems insatiable. At a micro level, we wonder how can we live in solidarity with local cultures, economies, species, and ethnicities. We are constantly seeking new ways to partner with and support local grassroots organizations, small businesses, schools, and individuals in this process.

You’ve led study and volunteer abroad programs to 12 countries, what sets Sol’s Costa Rica program apart from other programs?

SOL is extremely affordable when are compared to other programs, and yet includes so much more than most mainstream providers. I wish that I had been able to study abroad with SOL when I went abroad. I wish that I had had a director who cared about me and my fellow students as much as I care for my SOL Mates.

We have a relentless dedication to quality and purpose. Each and every activity has been thoughtfully planned and fine-tuned from student feedback, to maximize learning and adventure.

What sets us apart is our commitment to a higher purpose. I hope that through SOL we can inspire a generation of more awakened and connected global citizens. When students choose to go deep within themselves and truly immerse, study abroad with SOL has the potential to be a transformational experience. SOL is just as committed to being a positive agent for change in the local community, environment, and economy as we are in our student’s lives.

I am incredibly grateful to the families, neighborhoods, schools, organizations, and communities we partner with in Costa Rica for taking us in with open arms and working together for a better world.

Volunteering at an elderly center in Costa Rica

One of SOL's several volunteer activities in Heredia sing-a-long at the local center for the elderly - Photo Credit: SOL Mate Katie North

You’re also a freelance writer and video editor, what travel topic most inspires you?

I am most enticed by the idea of travel as a path towards an awakened global consciousness. Ideally, the more we travel the more wiser and compassionate we become. I hope that as we discover new places and connect with people from all walks of life, we can become more aware of the breathtaking beauty, heartbreaking injustice, and astounding resilience of life on planet earth. Does traveling abroad automatically make you a better person? Probably not. But travel combined with introspection, service, and action has the potential to change everything for the better.

You enjoy practicing yoga, meditation, and cooking in your free time. What activities are available to students during their free time in Costa Rica?

Perhaps one of the most amazing things about Costa Rica is that despite it being a tiny country the size of West Virginia, it hosts an astounding array of climates, habitats, and regions to discover. Tropical forests, white sand beaches, impossibly blue rivers, and active volcanos are just a bus ride away. Here in the Central Valley there is soccer, salsa dancing, museums, clubs or sports at the university, concerts, organic farms, yoga classes, and amusement parks.

However, the most important “activity” for students to do in their free time is called living Pura Vida. Pure life. The “aloha” of Costa Rica can mean hello, goodbye, how are you?, it’s all good, thank you, you’re welcome, etc, depending on the context and inflection. To me, Pura Vida means letting go of our addiction to being busy all the time. Relax. Enjoy the moment. Be grateful for what you have. Enjoy the moment. Stop worrying about the future or regretting the past. Slow down. Breathe. Just sit on the porch in a rocking chair and drink cafecito with your mama Tica. That is the pure life and the reason Costa Rica has earned a reputation as “the happiest country on the planet”. 

You’ve been with Sol Education Abroad for over eight years, what has been your biggest accomplishment?

Beyond a run-of-the-mill study abroad program, the SOL Costa Rica program has become a launch pad for our student’s dreams, a think-tank for solutions, a place to explore lifestyle and career opportunities, and above all, a place to meet your better self. 

Although it is certainly an honor to have been selected the number one study abroad program based on student reviews, my biggest accomplishment is seeing the seeds that were planted in my students over the past nine years blossom in their lives. SOL alumni are using their Spanish and cultural knowledge to help others in a million different ways across the United States and around the world.

SOL alumni serving Spanish-speaking people as health educators, doctors, nurses, nutritionist, psychologists, and social workers. One student just published a children’s book, another traveled across the United States in a biodiesel van raising awareness about environmental solutions. Many SOL students have become entrepreneurs, healers, artists, musicians, parents, and leaders in their communities. Through study abroad with SOL, countless students became inspired to add a Spanish minor, or consider career paths and lifestyles they never thought possible.

In Costa Rica, it’s a joy to watch SOL Mates fall in love with nature, travel on their own for the first time, practice yoga in the rainforest, swim in a waterfall, meet a baby sloth, or simply see the world from a fresh perspective. 

Ziplining in Costa Rica

Janiva with her SOL Mates on the Rainforest Zip Line Canopy Tour - gearing up for the superman cable

What is the most fulfilling part of working for Sol Education Abroad?

What I love most about working with SOL Education Abroad is that it allows me to fulfill my personal purpose every minute of every day, to awaken, inspire, and empower myself and those around me to make our world a healthier, safer, happier place for everyone. I believe that study abroad has life-changing potential, not only for students, but for the communities and families we touch when our paths intersect. I hope that as we travel and realize our humanity, imaginary borders become less and less real to us. Peace becomes an even more tangible possibility as we learn to identify less with a particular flag or nation, and more as a human family on our precious and finite planet Earth. 

What does the future hold for Sol’s Costa Rica program?

I look forward to meeting all of our future SOL Mates; each group of fresh faces, adventurous spirits, and curious souls who have the courage to step out of their comfort zones, to know what it is to be embraced by a family you never knew you had, to yet explore this lush, tropical, and biodiverse region of Central America. I am particularly excited for those students for whom Costa Rica is their very first stamp in their spanking-new passport. This is a perfect “first time” country for new travelers, and at the same time it is a “must see” for seasoned globe-trotters. 

I’m looking forward to developing exciting new Faculty-Led Custom Programs supporting ecotourism in rural communities, and forming more partnerships with grassroots organizations addressing serious global issues, such as human trafficking and climate change. I’m excited to continue to help students break out of their comfort zone, “dig deep”, make discoveries about themselves and our world they never would have noticed back home.

Our program is constantly evolving, and I thank my SOL Mates for this, because it is their ideas, enthusiasm, and curiosity that keep me on my learning edge.