McKinley Cole - 2015 Program Participant

View from the top of the Irazu Volcano in Costa Rica

Among the clouds atop Irazu Volcano

What led you to apply for an international program?

I chose to apply for an international program because I wanted to enrich my college experience beyond my campus. I wanted to be fully immersed in another culture, not just read about them in books. Wanting to learn and improve my Spanish also played a large role in my decision to study in another country. I figured the best way to learn the language would be to learn it in a country where it is spoken.

Why did you choose Sol Education Abroad for your international experience?

I chose Sol Education Abroad because they offered exactly what I was looking for in an international experience. It literally fell into my lap, my study abroad advisor dropped Sol's pamphlet in front of me. I'd had my heart set on another program and a different country, but as soon as I started reading about Sol's programs, I fell in love, especially with Costa Rica. It sounded too good to be true: all those excursions, cultural activities, and that low price? I was convinced there was some catch but as I got to know the Sol staff, I realized it they just really care about providing students with an awesome immersion experience.

Sol Education Abroad continued to impress me throughout my entire semester abroad. The program was everything I could've asked for, and then more.

What was your favorite part about your placement location within Costa Rica?

My favorite part about the location of my program is that it is close to the capital of Costa Rica, San José, but is located far enough away from the city that I was away from all the business that often accompanies large cities. Heredia is conveniently located towards the center of the country, so travel in all directions was feasible for weekend trips. As if location wasn't enough, the city is gorgeous, full of parks and churches, and flowers.

National Art Museum in San Jose, Costa Rica

Flipping our view of the world at the National Art Museum, San José, Costa Rica

What made your program stand out from other program options?

Sol Education Abroad is unique because it offers more than just excursions and enrollment in the local college. The staff genuinely care about your experience and will do what is necessary to help you. The cultural activities and excursions are an incredibly fun way to learn about the culture with your classmates and new best friends. I was most impressed with Sol's ability to teach the difference between being a tourist and a traveler.

What surprised you most about Costa Rica?

What surprised me most about Costa Rica was the people. I knew I would make friends and become close with my host family but I never could have imagined how welcoming and friendly the locals would be. I easily made friends in my classes and soon considered my host family an extension of my own. Locals I met were more than willing to answer my questions about directions and professors patiently taught me more than just the language. The people I met were a huge part of what made my experience so unforgettable.

In what ways did the local staff support you throughout your time in Costa Rica?

The local directors for my program became my trusted leaders and teachers. They taught me everything from cultural norms to life-lessons, and I'm incredibly thankful for them. Sol Education is made up of an incredible staff team all working towards the same goal: providing the best experience for their students.

What was the hardest part about studying abroad in Costa Rica?

The hardest part about studying abroad was the first night. I’d just gotten off a plane, was uncomfortable using the native language, and had no idea what I’d gotten myself into. Never before had I decided to pack a suitcase and live in a different country for almost four months. Had I started something I wouldn’t be able to finish? The initial nervousness was overwhelming and completely scary. However, the morning brought a brighter Costa Rican sun and a sense of adventure that changed my perspective and helped me to get past my fear and tackle the day with new confidence.

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

I wish I would have put my phone down more. Yes, the pictures were worth it, but I still found myself staring at a screen more than I should have. Even with my service turned off and only using wifi, I found myself checking my Facebook to see what friends back home were doing or using Pinterest to save Costa Rica travel ideas, when really I should've been spending more time with my host family or exploring my city.

White water Rafting down the Rio Pacuare in Costa Rica

White Water Rafting down Río Pacuare

What is one thing you wish you would have known before studying abroad in Costa Rica?

One thing I wish I would have known before studying abroad in Costa Rica is not to define your trip by your expectations. You should expect adventure and new friendships and awesome experiences, but don’t limit yourself by only expecting these things in one way. When I arrived, I expected to learn about the Spanish language and Costa Rica’s culture, little did I know my learning would go far beyond that.

I didn’t know that I would learn about the world around me, about people, about myself. I expected to make friends with students in my program but soon found I had made friends with locals as well. I expected adventure during my excursions on the weekends, but found that adventure was present in my own city and even in my backyard.

Keep your expectations open because anywhere will surprise you if you let it. 

What was a typical day like for you in Costa Rica?

My morning started with breakfast at the table with my roommates and host family. I spent the rest of the morning at class, learning from local teachers with other students from my program. Lunch was provided by my host mom. Afternoons consisted of either cultural activities, such as cooking class or dance class, volunteer opportunities, such as kindergarten teaching or assisting at the senior center, or free time to spend outside in the parks or exploring the city. Dinner was also provided by my host mom, always delicious. The evenings were always free to participate in game nights hosted by other students and the like, or complete homework.

Visiting La Fortuna Waterfall in Costa Rica

Weekend Excursion to La Fortuna Waterfall

What Sol activity did you enjoy most?

My favorite activities were the cultural activities in general. They encompassed the culture in fun ways, such as traditional cooking at a local's house, dance class so we could fit in a local clubs, or a coffee plantation tour to demonstrate the coffee-making process and its importance to the local economy. Usually we participated in one cultural activity a week, so we always had something exciting planned.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like about living with a host family?

During the semester I stayed with a host family and wouldn't have wanted it any other way. Not only were the home-cooked meals absolutely delicious, but living with a family allowed me to be immersed even when at home. My host family was welcoming and by the end of the program I felt like part of the family. I was always well taken care of and always had someone to go to with questions.

How has your time in Costa Rica changed your life?

My program has changed my way of thinking in regards to other cultures and the world we live in. It really opened my eyes as to how big our world is but also how easy it is to travel if you're passionate about it. I'm already excited for my next adventure, wherever that may be, so I can experience another culture and all it has to offer.

If you could study abroad again, where would you go?

If I could study abroad again I would be very tempted to return to Costa Rica. However, if I could study abroad in a different country I would love to see Spain. In fact, I had been set on my first study abroad experience being in Spain until I found Sol’s Costa Rica program. I’d love to experience another Spanish speaking country and its culture. Spain offers a completely different experience and I would love to live it.