Interning in Costa Rica

September 09, 2010

"The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page." So said philosopher and theologian Saint Augustine.  If this is true, then four Gallaudet undergraduates students recently wrote a new chapter by taking part in a 10-week internship course in Costa Rica. The students are the first to complete the new Costa Rica Track for general studies, a voluntary program open to all Honors students.

Starting in their sophomore years, students take courses that use the Latin American nation as a case study, learning about the geographical region, biodiversity, globalization, and social justice issues. Then, in the summer between their sophomore and junior years, the students complete an internship with the Costa Rican deaf community.

The interns began preparing for the summer during the 2009-2010 school year by taking at least four 200-level general studies courses. They also took lessons in LESCO (Costa Rican sign language) from native signer Francisco Navarro. Then, in late May, the group flew to their host country. They settled into host families' homes and soon began their work.

Here are two of their stories. 

Samantha Krieger, an English and secondary education major from Indiana, worked at the Centro Nacional de Education Especial, also known as Fernando Centro Güell. At the school, which serves students with special needs from ages 3 to 13, she assisted with school activities and observed the overall teaching practices.

She came prepared to lead educational games with a class of 6- and 7-year-old children. However, the project changed over the weeks and she served as classroom assistant. After observing and working with the children in their school environment for 10 weeks, she is submitting her discoveries and recommendations for improvement to ANASCOR, Costa Rica's national association of the deaf.

Krieger also teamed with her fellow interns to plan an Olympics Day for deaf youth. The event, held July 31, drew a group of young contenders between the ages of 15 and 23. The American interns arranged all the necessary elements, including rules for the competitions and scoring sheets, and also advertised the games with flyers. Krieger was able to adjust the games she had developed for children to match the slightly older crowd.

As she completed her formal projects, Krieger took part in the everyday lives of her host family. She learned about Costa Rican food and culture, as well as how to navigate communication when native languages differ. "Mostly we sign, fingerspell, or occasionally resort to writing with paper and pen," Krieger explained during her stay. Between her knowledge of Spanish, her host brother's advanced English, and the LESCO (Costa Rican sign language) that Krieger and her family knew, they got along.

During her travels, Krieger had a chance to see many different aspects of the country, some of which surprised her. It was not all palm trees and pristine forests, as she had expected. Though she did see that in remote provinces, she found busy streets and polluted air in the cities.

"It has been an amazing experience," Krieger said in the final weeks, though she admitted the stay was not without challenges. Kreiger has traveled to Canada, Mexico, Egypt, and Israel with groups and set itineraries. This time, she traveled on her own.

When it comes to advice for aspiring travelers, Krieger says to come prepared. "Be sure to know basic vocabulary in whatever language they use," she said. "I have had to resort to fingerspelling the words so that I could learn the sign for it, and if I hadn't known the Spanish word for it, I would be stuck trying to mime or gesture clearly enough (or flipping through a Spanish-English dictionary) to find out the word for it." 

Her next piece of advice is more about attitude than language: "Keep your mind open! You are not in Kansas anymore, darling. You're in another country, and the food, culture, and surroundings will be different."

Johanna Katz, a rising junior from Buenos Aires, Argentina, majoring in communication studies and Spanish, originally planned to work at a deaf school in Costa Rica this summer, but she chose instead to accept a request by the Asociación Nacional de Sordos de Costa Rica to work with them and the Defensoria de los Habitantes (Office of the Ombuds) de Costa Rica as a researcher on legal rights of the country's deaf population.

During the investigation, she interviewed students at two deaf schools and members of the San Jose deaf association. Many of Katz's questions were about deaf Costa Ricans' experiences living in a society where she said that deaf people are oppressed by the hearing society. Through her interviews she discovered a number of recurring issues that interfere with the deaf community's quality of life, such as teachers of deaf students who do not fully support LESCO--the country's sign language--which poses potential identity problems for deaf children, and a lack of interpreters.

Katz also worked on producing a short film about the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, adopted by the United Nations in 2006. The purpose of the video was to educate the Costa Rican hearing and deaf communities about the rights of people with disabilities.

After graduating, Katz plans to pursue a master's degree in international development or international studies. Her long-term goal is to work with Spanish-speaking people living in the United States on issues such as immigration, coping with culture shock, and language access. She would also like to work with the deaf community in Argentina as an advocate for establishing new laws that would provide expanded opportunities for education and employment.