By Daniel Siegeltuch
On Thursday, October 29, 2015, the Ambassador of Costa Rica to the United States, His Excellency Roman Macaya Hayes, hosted a reception for the participants of the World Affairs Council-Washington DC’s Young Ambassadors program at the Embassy of Costa Rica. The five participants- high school students from DC metro area schools- gave a presentation detailing their three weeks of language exchange, research and cultural immersion in Costa Rica to the Ambassador, Program Chaperone Mary Shoukat , WAC-DC’s Global Education leadership team and WAC-DC supporters as well as families and friends.
Ambassador Hayes began the presentation by addressing the role of education in Costa Rica’s economic successes. Contrary to the global narrative of Costa Rica as an underdeveloped nation, the Ambassador asserted, the country’s early focus on education since its independence has allowed it to become a regional leader in research, development and engineering. “We bet on education early on,” he noted, explaining that in 1869, Costa Rica made education free and mandatory for both boys and girls, creating an environment in which “the daughter of a farm worker on a coffee plantation had the same access to education as the son of a coffee plantation owner.”
This egalitarian approach, he argued, laid the foundation for future economic achievements such as the emergence of medical devices as Costa Rica’s number one physical export. He added that services, especially engineering, design, and financial analysis, comprise 72% of Costa Rica’s GDP; in 2015, the technology company Intel opened a lab there to design a computer chip, which “put Costa Rica on the map” as a place for research and development. The Ambassador emphasized that the dynamic parts of Costa Rica’s economy are “things that use the mind,” including engineering, design, and research, and concluded that education is the key that enables Costa Rica to adopt and contribute to these technological innovations.
Tony Culley-Foster, President and CEO of WAC-DC, thanked Ambassador Hayes for his remarks, and turning to the five Young Ambassadors, declared that Costa Rica’s innovative spirit was now part of their DNA as well. “The five outstanding young people in this room,” he affirmed, now belong to a fifteen year tradition of enriching cultural immersion experiences that have turned them into new people with a strengthened global perspective.
The five Young Ambassadors then assembled to present their experiences in Costa Rica, beginning with the families that hosted them for their stay. Noelle Henein, a sophomore at Richard Montgomery High School in 2015, recalled the closeness that the Young Ambassadors shared with their “familia tica,” a Costa Rican term of endearment that characterized their relationships with their host families in the close-knit town of Santa Anna. Anna DuBro, a junior in 2015 at George Mason High School, added that talking with her host family not only improved her Spanish skills but helped her to become a stronger communicator as well. Michaela Johnson, a Broadneck High School junior, fondly recalled how her fellow Ambassador, Montgomery Blair High School junior in 2015 Alice Conteh, often came to her host family’s house to help translate between them, an experience which highlighted the communal bond between the Young Ambassadors and their Costa Rican families.
The Young Ambassadors continued to delve into their educational experiences and research in Costa Rica. Michaela talked about Conversa, the language immersion program where the students were only permitted to speak Spanish, which developed the Young Ambassadors’ confidence in their language skills. Adriel Sumathipala, a senior at Broad Run High School in 2015, added that this language immersion helped him to think about language acquisition in a different way, and the new linguistic perspective that he gained allowed him to succeed in his Spanish classes in school. Adriel also discussed Costa Rica’s government, which he explained is considered “the Switzerland of Latin America” for its commitment to diplomatic neutrality. He also emphasized how Costa Rican elections are publicly funded, money for political ads are drawn from the national budget, and that candidates are given equal time on the radio to present their platforms.
Noelle and Anna then discussed Costa Rica’s economy. Noelle talked about the historical centrality of the export of coffee to the economy as well as the primacy of the ecotourism industry; while Anna recalled her experience navigating one of Costa Rica’s many open air markets and learning how to negotiate the price of the diverse goods such as pottery, jewelry and freshly made coconut water. Many of the Young Ambassadors also spoke on how Costa Rica’s rich biodiversity enhanced their experiences: Alice talked about a memorable group bonding adventure during a visit to Isla Tortuga, Michaela shared about the group’s trip to the highly sulfuric volcano Volcan Poaz, and Anna remembered how the beautiful beaches of the Manuel Antonio National Park provided an ideal setting for the team to reflect on everything that they had learned. Adriel shared a lesson that their beloved tour guide Jose had imparted that had remained with him: natural elements such as fungus, bacteria, and insects, while not the most readily noticeable aspect of an environment, are nonetheless crucial to the healthy functioning of Costa Rica’s diverse ecosystems.
Each of the Young Ambassadors agreed that their journey to Costa Rica had been meaningful and transformative. Alice expressed her gratitude that the program had given her the tools to grow, mature, and create lifelong friendships with a team that she now considers “like a second family”. Adriel reflected on the love he felt from the people of Costa Rica, attesting to the way that Costa Ricans share love freely, in a way that is not tied to a superficial consumer culture; this deeply felt expression of love, he stressed, was the cornerstone of his immersive experience in Costa Rica. At the conclusion of their presentation, the five students gathered to receive their certificates from Global Education Director Amanda Stamp, officially becoming graduates of WAC-DC’s expanding network of Young Ambassadors.