Sarah Merrifield - 2017 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

My love for the Spanish language, desire to connect with other cultures, and passion for travel.

Why did you choose USAC?

USAC Heredia Costa Rica was an affordable option in a country renowned for its natural resources. It is also very easy to be vegan here.

What was your favorite part Costa Rica?

I am in love with the natural beauty of Costa Rica. Everywhere I turn I am amazed by the biodiversity this country offers.

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

La Fortuna, Costa Rica

What made your experience abroad unique?

My experience abroad is unique because I lived with a host family and so I was really immersed in the culture. I also traveled a lot on the weekends and was able to experience the city, the mountains, the rainforest, and the beaches here.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

The local staff here is incredible. They are always on hand to help, whether it is a school-related matter or not. They are bilingual and very supportive of my education.

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

Nothing, honestly. Maybe go to more far away places, like Corcovado National Park. But I know I will return one day!

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

I would wake up around 8, eat breakfast, take the bus to university, go to class, eat lunch in the soda with friends, go to my second class of the day, end class around 4, then go to whatever activity the program has planned for us and be home for dinner around 7:30.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

I love running and walking throughout my neighborhood, San Rafael. I am also constantly scouting organic and natural markets with vegan options, and vegan restaurants in San Jose. I also blog my travels.

Montezuma in Costa Rica

Montezuma, Costa Rica

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best it?

I lived in a homestay with a tica family. I loved their close care. When I got sick, they were there for me. I am not accustomed to having my laundry done for me, my meals cooked, or my room cleaned, but I appreciate it so much and it really takes away any stress from being here.

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

Bring lots of cash to exchange here! There are ATMs but most banks charge outrageous fees. Prepare for warm weather; you don't need to bring a lot of layers, just a good amount of the basics. Also, plan to travel a lot. The bus system makes it so easy to get around here and it's pretty affordable. Take advantage of the small country you are staying in and see as much as possible!

What was the hardest part studying abroad?

The hardest part studying abroad was adjusting to my different life here, such as the way there is less accommodating services in stores and restaurants, and the lack of hot water in my home.  Also, the time difference means I don't talk to family and friends back home very often which was difficult at first.

What surprised you most Heredia?

What surprised me Heredia is how modern and developed it is.  I live in La Suiza de San Rafael, which feels like a small neighborhood with tiny businesses and schools scattered . Near the university, though, there are countless American restaurants and a very modern mall.  Heredia feels distinctly Costa Rican to me now, while San José feels like any big city in the U.S.

La Paz, Costa Rica

La Paz, Costa Rica

How difficult was it to communicate with locals?

I have been studying Spanish for eight years, so I didn't have trouble communicating with locals. Only in Limón, where the dialect is a blend of languages but most people know English there too.

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

One thing I wish I would have known is that it's very advantageous to have a credit card or a bank that doesn't charge outrageous fees. I've traveled a lot, and paid a mountain of ATM fees since I've been here. I at least should have brought a good amount of cash, but I didn't.

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

If I could study abroad again, I'd be interested to go to an Arabic-speaking country like Saudi Arabia so I can learn the language. That or somewhere in Southeast Asia like Thailand, or India because the diet is very vegan-friendly, the cultures are beautiful, and it's cheap and easy to travel.

What do you feel the biggest benefit of studying abroad is?

The biggest benefit of studying abroad is learning to become fearless. I've done so many things since being here that I never thought I'd do, like snorkeling in the middle of the ocean or hiking volcanoes. Costa Rica has taught me to be a more relaxed and flexible person, because sometimes things don't go as planned. But I've also learned to take advantage of every day you have to explore and open your mind in some way. When I return home, I won't be able to stay in one place.

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas del Toro, Panama

Do you have any packing tips for individuals headed to Costa Rica?

My packing tips for Costa Rica are to bring mostly clothes for warm weather, and a couple jackets and sweaters. Bring clothes and an umbrella for the rain, because in the fall it rains almost daily. Bring gear for hikes and bathing suits. Bring any special toiletries you may not be able to find here, and medications you need. Bring enough cash for a while, or have a good credit/debit card. Bring sunscreen, bugspray, and a hat to protect yourself from the elements.  Lastly, bring some books (preferably in Spanish) so you can practice in your down time too!

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

Costa Rica has opened my eyes to a much more relaxed way of life and shown me how I can improve my well-being if I focus on the main important things like family and time in nature. I am more fearless now, and ready to travel anywhere I can, no matter how broke I am. If there is a will, there is a way.

Would you recommend USAC to others? Why?

Yes! USAC is a wonderful program. I love the connections we have, the community we form, and the support that is provided.