February 18, 2011

Students -- see the world and keep your head on straight

Interesting column the other day by National Review's Jason Fertig -- quoting Dennis Prager -- about how beneficial it is for students to study abroad. Prager says:

All this travel has been life-changing and life-enhancing. For many years, I have urged young people to take a year off after high school to work and to take time off while in college to travel abroad, ideally alone for at least some of the time.

Nearly everyone grows up insular. The problem is that vast numbers of people never leave the cloistered world of their childhood. This is as true for those who grow up in Manhattan as those who grow up in Fargo or Tokyo. And as for college, there are few places as insular and cloistered as the university.

Insularity is bad because at the very least, it prevents questioning oneself and thinking through important ideas and convictions. And at worst, it facilitates the groupthink that allows for most great evils.

Now, as neither my father nor mother went to college, they refused to allow me to take a year off to work, insisting that I remain in college to "get that piece of paper (diploma)" as my dad put it. However, as I was minoring in Spanish, when the opportunity arose to study abroad in the Central American nation of Costa Rica my junior year (spring of 1986), my parents shared my enthusiasm for the idea. First, a little information about tiny Costa Rica:

  • It has no army. It abolished its army in 1948 and poured those funds into education.
  • It's one of the longest-running (and strongest) democracies in Latin America, with a vibrant two-party system (although, like the US, numerous third parties abound).
  • The people are unabashedly pro-U.S.
  • It's sometimes known as the "Switzerland of the Americas" due to its peaceful nature and general neutrality in regional conflicts.
  • Its president, Oscar Arias, won the Nobel Peace Prize during his first term as the country's leader, in 1990 for his role in brokering a peace deal for Central America. (Guerrilla wars were being fought in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua at the time.)
  • Life expectancy in Costa Rica is 79 years -- not bad for a "Third World" country!
  • Its literacy rate is 95%, one of the highest in the world.

One of the fascinating things about teaching Spanish now for 20 years is attempting to impart to young Americans a sense of how good they have it here in the U.S. And I mean really good. Despite the good demographic ratings for Costa Rica, there is real poverty there -- and I mean REAL. "Poverty" in the U.S. can mean you still have cable TV, air conditioning, a cell phone, a microwave, etc. ... even a car. Whereas in CR poverty means absolutely none of those things -- and possibly no running water, no plumbing, no electric power. Yet, you'll see the poorest of kids walking miles to school in their blue uniforms ... to attend classes alongside their better-off peers. The "uniform uniforms" for CR public schools means that class differences are barely noticeable. After witnessing what students in CR go through to get to school and to get an education, it miffs me when I then see the all-too common apathetic attitude of American kids today. Indeed, aside from living the example abroad, over the years I've talked to parents from foreign countries who have moved here, and many have expressed surprise -- and outrage -- at how American students could care less about their education ... let alone how they fail to appreciate everything that your average American classroom is equipped with. In Costa Rica (and many other countries), if there's enough desks, chairs and a chalkboard, that's "well-equipped." Of course, no matter what I say to my Spanish students, they'll never be able to truly grasp how fortunate they are to be living in the U.S. They, like I did, will have to experience it. (Ah, the 'ol adage "Talk is cheap ...!")

To be sure, I didn't fully appreciate my experiences until several years after -- indeed, until I entered the "real world," i.e. post-college. One of the problems with a college semester abroad (as some note in the comments in the link above) is that some -- most? -- students will use such a time to merely party their asses off. Well, OK yeah, I did my share of that, I admit. Not to mention, if your accompanying professor is a rabid lefty (like mine was), you might just suffer a bit of indoctrination. As I noted way back in one of my first posts at Colossus, Dr. M, though one terrific person, made few bones about letting us know where his political sympathies lied. He was a big supporter of the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua (who at the time were fighting against the U.S.-backed Contras) and all the guest speakers he "treated" us to were leftists, one of whom openly mocked the U.S. and its domestic and foreign policies. But again, Dr. M wasn't a "my way or the highway" type of prof; indeed, as noted in the linked post above, one of the ... funnier moments of the trip occurred when Dr. M invited a member of the new Arias government over for a political discussion, and the guy essentially mocked Dr. M's opinions and statements as unrealistic and even outright wrong. I don't think Dr. M expected that, because, as noted, only one side of an issue (the left) was usually explored in our classes and discussions. (And I think this was partly -- even mostly -- due to Dr. M believing we already were exposed to the other side via the media and conventional wisdom, so to speak ... even though that assumption was largely erroneous.)

And ... I did fall for some of Dr M's indoctrination. We all did, the thirteen of us in the University of Delaware group, to some degree. I became sympathetic to the FSLN (Sandinista) cause (Dr. M had us read a book on the Sandinista literacy crusade; after completing it, it was quite difficult to find fault with anything Danny Ortega and Co. were doing!)

Ronald Reagan ordered the bombing of Libya during our stay in CR, and a short time thereafter there was a grenade attack on our embassy in downtown San Josť, the capital. I had been out that night with my Tica (native slang for "Costa Rican") girlfriend and had no idea what happened. My parents were frantic, and called the house where I stayed all night, much to the chagrin of my host family! A few days later, the words "Reagan Terrorista" was spray painted on the wall right across the street from my house, with an accompanying swastika. I wondered if the culprits knew an American was living in the house across the street. Should I be worried? I was, but thankfully nothing ever happened to me. (The U.S. embassy was moved shortly thereafter to a more suburban location; in fact, it is now a mere 400 meters up the street from my in-laws' house. Yes, even though I split from my Costa Rican wife of 20 years a year and a half ago, I still call her parents my "in-laws" as I maintain an excellent relationship with them and they are, simply put, the nicest people I've ever known.)

Speaking of my host family, they were the "poorest" -- monetarily speaking, purely -- of the thirteen host families for the UD group. Their house was located in downtown San Josť, and was quite old. It was certainly ... a shock, in terms of adjustment the first few days I was there. Ever see a palmetto bug? These sons of bitches were living in the walls of the house, and at night you could hear them munching on whatever house material they were, well, munching on! Zancudos, or what we cheerfully call "mosquitos," were endemic at night since, for some reason, many Tico households do not like screens on their windows. Eventually, I wised up and bought a package of "espirales" -- a spiral-shaped thingie that you light at night and keeps mosquitos at bay. My family didn't exactly take care of leftover food the way I was used to; I think that contributed to my getting the sickest I've ever been in my life a month and a half after I arrived in CR.

But y'know what? They were some of the kindest, gentlest, politest and down-to-earth people I've ever met. The mom and dad had five children then; the oldest lived in New Mexico, and the other four were at home. Two of the girls have since passed away -- one, two years older than I, from cancer, and another, my age, from a car accident. They had run the cafeteria at a local private school, and I helped them out a few times when they were in a pinch. (Which was pretty neat, too, since it was a bilingual academy.) I'd visited them a couple times since 1986 -- once in 1992 (my first trip back to CR after being married), and again in 1999. In 2009, the last time I was in the country, they were no longer living in the house in which I'd visited them ten years previous (they had moved a couple miles from the 1986 house back in 1993). I asked numerous neighbors if they knew where they'd gone, but to no avail.

I hope I'll track them down someday. I always look back at that spring of 1986 quite fondly. It made me very appreciative to have been born and raised in my own country, but also made me realize more than ever that material comfort and possessions are certainly not the end-all to be-all in life. And of course, it gave me a whole new perspective on looking at things, not just exclusively from the estadounidense angle.

Posted by Hube at February 18, 2011 09:42 PM | TrackBack

Comments  (We reserve the right to edit and/or delete any comments. If your comment is blocked or won't post, e-mail us and we'll post it for you.)

While the sentiments expresed here are very nice, they are also a teeny bit elitest. I went to college right out of HS and went back in my 30's, and neither time did I have the money to travel to another country. I spent my time, as I would think many of us do, working a part-time job and living in a cheap place so I would have enough money to exist on my pay, grants and loans.

I DO suggest seeing the U.S. as early as possible. I've lived and travelled all over it, and yes, there is a difference in provinciality between those who marry and settle down in their small town right after HS and those who move around a bit.

Posted by: adam at February 27, 2011 07:24 PM

adam: Well, I was (and am) very far from well-off; the cost of the semester in Costa Rica wasn't any more than the cost of a regular semester at my college, sans air fare (and I imagine this is the case in many study-abroad opportunities). I'd recommend, if you're in college, certainly researching it.

Nevertheless, I am totally cognizant that not every college kid has the means to study abroad. I'm just saying that if you can do it, it will certainly open your eyes in many, many ways.

Posted by: Hube at February 27, 2011 07:33 PM