Laura Jelich - 2013 Program Participant

A nest of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles hatching
A nest of Olive Ridley Sea Turtles hatching. Photo by Laura Jelich

How did you end up volunteering abroad in Costa Rica?

I actually didn't start out looking for ways to either volunteer or to get abroad. It was while job searching my senior year of college when I was getting slightly depressed thinking about sitting at a desk in an office all day every day that on a whim I started looking up opportunities working with animals (my true passion). I came across a volunteer program that advertised saving baby sea turtles in Costa Rica. Having never been out of the country by myself before, but thinking it sounded like the perfect fix to my sudden onset of turning-into-an-adult-anxiety, I decided to go for it! My plan was to get it out of my system so that I could happily settle into my professional career once I got home. That completely backfired, obviously, and my trip only ignited a newfound burning need to continue to travel as much as I can!

What about Costa Rica specifically appealed to you?

I chose Costa Rica mostly because that was where the turtle conservation program that I researched was located. Once I started talking to other travelers though, I heard only great things about Costa Rica and was also excited for the chance to practice and work on my limited Spanish-speaking abilities.

What made you choose IVHQ over other programs?

Originally I was planning to go with a different organization. I ended up switching because I was connected through a mutual friend with another girl who was planning to do the exact same trip, only through IVHQ. She planned on going earlier than I could, so after hearing her testimonial I signed up with IVHQ instead.

What were your accommodations like in Costa Rica?

During orientation in San Jose I was placed in a host family. Although I was extremely nervous at first (because of my previously mentioned limited Spanish), I am SO glad I was forced to be outside my comfort zone and not surrounded by other English-speaking volunteers the whole time. Though I was only with my host family for a short time, I truly enjoyed my time with them. So much so that after finishing my volunteering stint at my placement location, I came back to San Jose for a couple days before flying out and stayed with them again. It was during Independence Day and they invited me along to their daughter’s school parade and celebration! The rest of the time, while I was at my volunteer placement site, I stayed in a bunkhouse with all the other volunteers, just steps away from the ocean!

What did a normal day volunteering in Costa Rica consist of?

Rain. The normal day in Costa Rica consisted of a lot of rain. We usually woke up very early before it either got too hot to be out working on the beach or before the rain hit, whichever came first. Then starting around mid-day it would rain for several hours. During this time we would read, clean, do laundry, and whatever else we could to keep busy. If the rain wasn't too bad, we would play soccer on the beach or explore the secret spots of the locals - like hidden waterfalls and climbing cliffs. We would all eat dinner together, and then start nightly patrols once it was dark. Because we had to patrol when the turtles were most likely to lay, we wouldn't get to bed until late, which meant not a lot of sleep. Although some days it was hard to accept not being able to work or explore all day because of the weather, it was actually great for me to learn how to not have to be busy all the time. We were still able to take advantage of every situation, and some great memories and friends were made even during the rainy afternoons spent in the volunteer quarters.

What was the most memorable experience of your volunteer trip?

So, so many. But probably the coolest moment was when I was able to watch and physically help a whole nest of baby sea turtles hatch and make their way safely to the sea. They were so tiny and so detailed; it was something I never thought I would see in real life, much less be a part of!

What was the biggest challenge you faced throughout the experience?

Honestly, the biggest challenge was just going through with it. I was extremely close to backing out before I even left the U.S. Once I was abroad, however, even the seemingly most challenging situations simply became part of the experience and I enjoyed every second of it. 

What advice would you give to others interested in IVHQ Costa Rica?

Do it! But when planning how long to stay, stay longer. Your only regret will be leaving too soon. Also, do everything available to you. Even if it seems scary, uncomfortable, or like too much effort. Even if you are exhausted after a long day of digging and longer night of patrolling the beach, if someone wakes you up at 2:00 a.m. to see a leatherback sea turtle digging a nest a couple miles down the beach, you get up and you go. You won't regret it.

What about Costa Rica would make you return someday?

The vibe in Costa Rica is awesome. Pura Vida is so palpable you can not only see it in the everyday lives of the Ticos, but you can feel it - and it's catching! As someone who gets stressed about running late, ruined plans, and long to-do lists, learning to take a step back and truly experience each day and make the most of every situation was life-changing.

Also, Costa Rica has so much to offer! In addition to the awesome and welcoming people, there is tons to see and do. Not only was the work we were doing for turtle conservation extremely important, but I wish I had longer to do more exploration as well.

How has your decision to volunteer abroad in Costa Rica impacted your life?

It has not only allowed me to better handle daily stressors (pura vida!), but it has opened my eyes to a whole world of opportunities I didn't know existed before. If I had not volunteered abroad, I would not have come home and road-tripped the U.S., which consequently led me to move across the country to the mountains of Colorado where I could not be happier. 

Also I would not have pursued my passion of working with animals (I now work at a dog rescue shelter and a veterinary clinic), as well as realize and take steps towards my ultimate goal of getting paid to travel abroad through writing!

Would you recommend your IVHQ program to others?

100% yes. Although I didn't quite know what to expect going in, and initially felt totally unprepared, I had access to a contact who helped answer a lot of my questions and walked me through some things I was unsure about - even what to pack! Also, the in-country organization I was connected with through IVHQ did an incredible job preparing us for the work we were to do, educating us about the issue, and introducing us to the culture and customs of Costa Rica.

Given the opportunity to travel again, where would you go and what would you do?

I would love to go back to Central America and travel through several countries this time, including Costa Rica again. I had such a great experience and while I know that no experience can be repeated twice, I also know that there is still so much more there and I would be excited to find out what it is. 

Equally as much, I would love to go to Africa and volunteer doing conservation work with the Big Five. I actually was accepted to an internship in South Africa working with lions a couple months after returning home from Costa Rica, but ended up not being able to afford to go at the time.

Did you experience any kind of reverse culture shock returning home from Costa Rica?

I did actually, more than I thought I would for the short amount of time I was abroad. It was extremely difficult to come back home where everyone cared so much about things that suddenly didn't matter to me as much as they did before. Like working all day every day at a job you hated just to try to get ahead in your career. Although I was able to find a healthy balance after a couple weeks, it took awhile to remind myself that my family and friends did not have the same experience that I did.