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Chester County Press

UHS students return from Costa Rica

07/29/2019 12:50PM ● By J. Chambless

UHS students enjoy the sights of Costa Rica.

By JP Phillips

An earthquake, a teacher strike, and student protests were all part of the experiences of 24 Unionville rising juniors and seniors during their Costa Rica adventure that took place from June 25 to July 9.

It was part of an annual student exchange program organized by Unionville High School’s world language department. Every winter, students from a partner school in France, Germany, or Costa Rica come to the United States to practice their English skills, see the sights and learn about our culture. Unionville students who host them then go to their countries to do the same.

On even-numbered years, students studying German and French participate in the program.  On odd-number years, Spanish students make the trip.

This year, UHS partnered with Colegio Técnico Profesional San Rafael de Poás, a magnet high school in Alajuela, Costa Rica.  It’s located in the central part of the country, under the Poás volcano, visible from just about everywhere.

“It’s really representative of the country,” Spanish teacher and trip chaperone Julie Hawkes said, speaking about the people, the area, and why the school was selected.  Adding to the authenticity of the experience, Unionville students stayed with host families in scattered towns surrounding the school.

Hawkes felt that going to Latin America versus Spain was an important aspect of the trip, as many students will go to Europe to study or vacation during their lifetimes. “It’s providing that very different experience for our Unionville students who might never ever get that experience,” she said.

Normally, the itinerary includes three days shadowing students as they go through their school schedules and several excursions to local attractions. Weekends are spent experiencing family life with the host families.

But because of a teacher strike and student protests (mostly against the minister of education’s policies and a proposed value-added tax), school was not in session.  It gave the students more time for interesting excursions -- some done as a group, and some individually with host families.  Activities included community service, a visit to the capital city of San Jose, Poás Volcano National Park, a dairy farm, a coffee farm, the zoo, Baldi Hot Springs, Laz Paz Waterfall Gardens, and zip-lining through the beautiful Costa Rican forests.  

Weekends were family time.  Students stayed with their host families and did what families do --cook, day trips, and visiting extended family members. And being teenagers, there were trips to the mall, playing sports, and just hanging out with their Costa Rican friends. 

Unionville juniors Maggie Buchanan and Zoe Nicole Chadwick both spoke of how wonderful the people were and how important family is in the Costa Rican culture. The students were met at the airport by their host families.  Chadwick said that she had been video chatting with her Costa Rican partner, but seeing her and her family for the first time at the airport was a great experience.  “They were just so sweet.  Really welcoming, really accommodating,” she said. Chadwick said there were four generations of extended family living adjacent to her host family. 

Buchanan’s experience was similar.  “The road that we were living on is called the Calle Vargas and my (host) family’s name is Vargas. Basically, the entire street was filled with their family members,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said that her favorite parts of the trip were the excursions and spending time with her host family. Chadwick agreed. “When we were over there, I just felt like you were a part of that family,” Chadwick said.  “One weekend we went to see their grandfather and they had a houseful of people over there! They are really sweet people.”

They experienced a 6.2 earthquake during their first night.  “I was already in my bed by that time, and a big truck went by,” Buchanan said.  She initially thought the house was not too sturdy when it shook so badly. “Then they came and said, ‘earthquake’ -- 'temblor! temblor!’ --And we all sort of huddled under a little doorway,” she said.  While it was unnerving for the Unionville students, the locals took it in stride and there were no injuries or damage. 

Buchanan and Chadwick noted some surprises, such as not being about to flush toilet paper (due to the clay pipes used in older septic systems), that house cats were significantly smaller, and many dogs roamed free in the villages. Some houses did not have hot water in all of the sinks (only in the showers), and Buchanan’s host family’s house did not have a ceiling -- the tall, solid walls were like dividers, and she could see the house rafters.

Both students agreed that the trip helped their Spanish fluency.  Buchanan said, “When I was down there, I was definitely thinking more in Spanish.” Chadwick added that her host family didn’t speak any English, so she had significant practice.   

Spanish teacher and program coordinator Cindy Pisauro feels that the exchange program is a very valuable opportunity.

 “It gives them a real-life opportunity to get to know a different culture, and people of a different culture, and experience it in a home setting as opposed to going and staying at a hotel or going on a tour,” she said.  “Having that host family experience can be a really unique and special opportunity.  This is really a once in a lifetime experience.”