After spending a semester in Costa Rica, I have some tips for other students. Some might just apply to Costa Rica/the Concordia program, but I think a lot will apply to other programs and countries as well
Don’t take too much!
Remember that whatever you take with you has to either come back with you or be left in the place you are studying. Try to only pack things you know you will use! I am proud to say that every article of clothing I took, I used at least once. Also, there’s no reason to load up on shampoo, soap, etc. My recommendation is to take enough for one month so that you have time to get accustomed to the area (enough time to learn where to buy stuff, how to get there, etc.). I do recommend, however, bringing enough bug spray and sunscreen for your whole trip, because in Costa Rica they are expensive! One bottle of sunscreen there costs around $14. Still, bug spray and sunscreen are really only for the weekends, most likely, so you won’t go through too much of it (I didn’t use more than half a bottle of each).
If you have the option to choose between living in a dorm and living with a host family, choose to live with a family! Living with a host family was my favorite part of my entire experience. My host family was very friendly and talked with me every day, so I improved my Spanish and also learned a lot about the lives of typical Costa Ricans. My host family also took me a few places, gave me travel advice, fed me, and did my laundry while I was there, which was really nice. Bonding with my host family was fun and easy because it’s just like living with a bunch of roommates—there was always someone around when I wanted to do something! I could ask my host mom about anything and she would have the answer, and my host siblings always had funny stories to tell at the dinner table. Spending time with host families is a much better use of time than sitting on facebook (you can do that in the states!).
One of my biggest regrets about studying abroad was that I didn’t get to know very many locals. My program was a program with international students separated, while other programs have international students mixed in with the locals. This made it really hard to meet people outside of my host family. The university does have a tico mentors program now that they tried during my last month of classes, and I did meet one student, but she was the only one I met at the university. Obviously, I met a lot of people at my volunteer placement, and I even met a girl at Taco Bell who I am facebook friends with. They are really awesome, and I wish I had met them sooner in my trip so that I could have bonded more with them and met more people from Costa Rica. Look for ways to meet locals when studying abroad—hopefully you will do a better job than I did!
Mistakes (this one goes with host families & locals):
Most likely, wherever you study abroad, you will have to learn a new language or practice a language you have already learned. It’s really important to not be scared to make mistakes with the language, especially with people you trust! I went to Costa Rica already knowing quite a bit of Spanish, but lots of kids in the program knew none at all. Let me tell you, language mistakes lead to lots of laughs and they break the ice. Also, most host families are used to crazy ways that we Americans say things and can usually understand us anyway. I know I made a lot of mistakes with my Spanish, but unfortunately none of them were too comical. However, some of my friends ended up saying some pretty funny things, like asking if a vendor had underwear when she really wanted to know if he sold calzones or saying the door exploded instead of it being broken. Even little mistakes led to inside jokes with my host family and my roommate and I, so making mistakes actually helped us out a bit. I think this is the same for cultural mistakes—my host family always wanted to hear what stupid things I had done that day.
Take the right amount of classes and make sure you get in classes that are right for you. My first class that I took in Costa Rica was not the right level of Spanish for me (too easy), and I really should have switched right away. I had the opportunity to switch in the first week, but I waited too long, so I had to stick with it. Then, since I felt like I didn’t learn a lot in the class that was mostly review, I decided to pay extra to take a second Spanish-intensive. It would have been a lot smarter to just take the right class in the first place (or switch when I could have), so be careful with that! Also, make sure you don’t take too many classes or not enough. My roommate took a lot of extra classes, and there were some days when she was swamped, staying up late stressed, etc. However, I had other friends who never had anything to do. It’s hard to tell in advance how hard classes are going to be, etc. but it’s nice to have free time to explore and hang out with your host family (just as long as you take the classes/credits you need!).
Travel as much as you can! Going on little trips on the weekends is a really great way to see the surrounding areas, how the people live, etc. I think in Costa Rica the people in the city have a very different lifestyle than those in the mountains or those near the coast. A lot of the provinces have their own subcultures too, which is fun to discover. Traveling also tests your organization skills if you are traveling in a group, your Spanish (when you have to talk to taxi drivers, bus drivers, hostel owners, and waiters at restaurants), and your willingness to go outside your comfort zone (if you want to sleep in a hammock by the beach, that’s completely fine in Costa Rica—not that I recommend it).
Seize the day, reflect, and take lots of pictures!
You’re most likely never going to have another experience like studying abroad, so if you get the chance to do things you wouldn’t normally have the chance to do, do them!!! Take lots of pictures to capture your experiences