To live and to learn: the case for study abroad

Studying abroad is an essential experience for all W&L students

Ana Dorta, Staff Writer

When I chose to study abroad in Costa Rica, I anticipated improving my Spanish, trying new foods, and, if I was lucky, getting to explore a few new beaches. What I never could have imagined is the impactful lessons, life-changing connections, and diverse perspectives that I fortunately smuggled across the border.  

Attending a prestigious university like Washington and Lee awards students the opportunity to learn and expand their world view every day they attend class. Each department boasts perceptive and stimulating professors, and I can say without hesitation that every class I have taken thus far has made me more intelligent and inquisitive than I was prior. However, with this said, the value of experiences outside of the classroom cannot be sufficiently underscored.  

For many of us in this graduating class, ‘23, and the class below, we were stripped of a portion of our college experience. The pandemic posed challenges and hardships, with one of the most focal losses for me personally being a year without access to all the opportunities that make Washington and Lee so unique. With this said, I missed out on the typical time frame to study abroad.  

However, I had long dreamed of going to Costa Rica and, in my quest to become fluent in Spanish, I knew how imperative studying abroad was not just for my capacity in the language, but also for my personal growth and “full” college experience. I had to make a sacrifice – I wasn’t willing to give up one of my three spring terms on campus, but I also wasn’t willing to give up on my Latin American dream. I decided I would spend the first six weeks of summer studying abroad. 

This posed a difficult challenge for me. I needed an internship to prepare me for post-graduation life, but with my rather atypical timeline, finding a company willing to accommodate me proved difficult. Luckily, I was able to find such a company. However, watching my friends head off to their 9-5 as I jetted off to Liberia incited a bit of angst in me – this was truly the first time I had strayed from what some might refer to as the “linear” trajectory. But in hindsight, this deviation from the beaten path led me to what ultimately became one of my most life altering experiences.  

In Nicoya, Costa Rica, a place deemed one of the five “blue zones” of the world, a zone where the average lifespan is significantly longer, people are happier and life is lighter. The “tico” lifestyle is one characterized by an effortless, whimsical, and simplistic bliss unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. Fruit and black coffee are enough to make those who live in Costa Rica content.  

The life of the people living in Nicoya is slower, and some might say less complicated. People work in stores, on farms, as teachers, or at local businesses. The stress to become the next Bill Gates or the desire to create a multimillion dollar startup simply isn’t a concern. Ticos know how to live within themselves and, with this, they have an unparalleled ability to find satisfaction in the little moments, like greeting neighbors with a “con mucho gusto,” or bargaining (somewhat aggressively but mostly endearingly) with vendors at the local feria.  

When I returned from Costa Rica, I was significantly lighter than I was when I left —it was perhaps a product of the healthy, lean diet Costa Ricans consume, but more so a result of the peace that the Costa Rican air transfused into my soul.  

I met so many people that altered my convictions and opened my eyes to a different outlook on life. A few people stand out to me most: Agnes, my professor, who reminded me of the value of giving, learning and listening. She showed me that if we would all occasionally forsake our own worlds and focus on the thoughts and words of others, our perceptions and thus our rather narrow worldview could expand enormously.  

The other people that taught me an invaluable lesson were the travelers I met on my second to last weekend in Tamarindo, a small beach town near Nicoya. I stayed in a hostel with several people my age who were traveling throughout Latin America, either taking a gap year or working remotely. In just three short days, I formed really meaningful friendships with them, hopping from beach to beach, exploring all that Tamarindo had to offer. 

Some might say that many of them were abandoning their priorities—instead of working 9-5 jobs in an office, they were taking a less traditional path, working less but, in my opinion, certainly living and learning more.  

In my six weeks, a mere 42 days, of padding along Costa Rica’s unpaved terrain, mostly barefoot and wholly content, I learned more about myself, the world, and what it truly is to live than I ever have in my lifetime. This is not to say that college and the classroom don’t teach important lessons, but after my experience in Costa Rica, I would say that those lessons are only so resonant. To experience a new culture, new people, and a new “you” is a type of learning that cannot be replicated. 

 Take the jump. Stray from the beaten path. Do yourself a favor and study abroad.