Alternative Spring Break Programs: Please Don’t Come to Costa Rica

Up to about a year ago, I was participating in sending university students abroad to various international destinations, where we would “sell” students the opportunity to go “make a difference” in another country that “needs” their help. I’ve since left that line of work, and haven’t been too quiet in my own discourse about why these programs need to stop.

I now live in Costa Rica, a popular Alternative Spring Break destination, where I have been able to witness first hand what this country is all about. As a North American living and doing business here, I have been “schooled” several times by how well the country is managed and how their citizens are treated. I am especially able to see the excellent health care system that is in place for Costa Ricans, and I’ve come to recognize Costa Rican as a strong nation, full of healthy and happy people, where a lot of the times North America would be benefitted to take a page from the Costa Rica book on how things are done. It is a country with an excellent infrastructure. In terms of medicine, while certain areas may be underserviced geographically, there is no shortage of qualified and high-quality doctors and medical services available in this country. It’s not perfect, things could be better, but whose job is it to fix that? Certainly not North America’s.

I was reminded that Western’s Alternative Spring Break is operating another trip to Costa Rica, and I decided to look on the website and see that Western was offering a Costa Rica experience where undergraduate students ranging from about 17-21 with no medical background “will assist Costa Rican physicians in an under-serviced community. They will be involved in patient interviews, recording symptoms, taking blood pressure, respiratory rate and visiting homes in the community to notify community members of the clinic and to provide an appointment time, all will be done with the assistance of translators. Please Note: all activities are directed/supervised by trained physicians; translators assist participants in communicating with patients.”

As a North American now living in Costa Rica, I am begging North American students who think they’re going to be making an actual contribution to a Costa Rican community to just consider saving their money and staying home. We don’t need you here in Costa Rica. Here’s why:

You Have No Right Doing Medical Tasks Here. Costa Rica has a very high-quality education system, with very high quality and highly qualified doctors to show for it. I would never question the quality of any medical care I would receive here, and I happen to live in a very small town that would maybe be painted as “underserviced” by North American students. What message does shipping in 15-20 unqualified, likely-white, students into an “underserviced” area send to Costa Rica? That the Costa Rican system is unable to operate without their help, perpetuating old first/third world divisions that so many countries are working hard to overcome on their own. The program that Western is doing their experience through provides a translator, so that the English-speaking student can be involved in the “medical processes” and report back to the “trained physician” while “helping” medically. Think of what it must be like for a person in a rural Costa Rican town – they live quiet lives in usually all Tico (Costa Rican) communities, and then all of the sudden are being subjected to 15-20 medically unqualified North American students, wearing medical scrubs, who don’t speak their language. They’re told that these people are here to help them, when in truth, they can’t communicate and even more importantly, don’t possess a stitch of the medical knowledge to help in the slightest. Since I live in a small town, I would likely visit one of these medical clinics, but would feel incredibly concerned if it was a 17-21 year old undergraduate student who has been put in charge of my medical care. The picture I am trying to paint here underscores the sad and sick truth that these medical trips are all a fallacy created so that the university student can pad their resume and feel good about themselves at the expense of a Costa Rican getting access to adequate medical care through their inserted involvement. The students’ inability to adequately communicate with people, coupled with presenting a false portrayal of “qualified medical help” can actually do an incredible amount of harm rather than good. I beg you, young students, please leave the medicine to the qualified Costa Rican physicians, and qualified Costa Rican medical staff, who already sufficiently do their job.

These Trips Don’t Really Help Costa Rican Economy. It costs a student around $3000 Canadian dollars to participate in these trips. These costs go to travel, food and lodging for the students, and yes, it does infuse some money into Costa Rica, but the buck usually only stops with the partner agency, and rarely does any of the money trickle down into the communities they are claiming to “serve”. Of course, some of the money goes into the tourism that is tacked onto almost every service experience. Students pay almost the equivalent of tuition and living expenses for an academic term to make “an impact” while most of the money is only going into paying for the comfort of travel for the participating student. Think about it this way: most Costa Ricans make only $520-800 dollars per month, and can make anywhere from $2.50 to just over $5/hr, depending on skill level. With citizens of foreign countries so willing to pay $3000 to “help Costa Rica”, I’d think that investing that money directly into a medically qualified Tico’s salary would go a lot further than a university students one-week feel-good trip. Why not just donate your $3000 to Costa Rica? I can even show you where you can do that!

Costa Ricans (and the world) are On To You. I can’t just speak for Costa Ricans, but I do notice that many countries have caught on to the North American student’s pursuit of altruism in order to pad their resumes; I saw this first when organizing a trip to Guatemala a few years ago. Countries are eager to participate, as they see this type of “voluntourism” as a money-maker for those agencies that are set up to host North American students, especially when it trickles into the tourism industry, which university service trips ALWAYS do. Service trips, and the fact that they do little to actually help host communities, have been one of the worst-kept secrets to those countries  where North America has for too long taken advantage of those people who see dollar signs and agree to host them in service projects they claim will benefit a community. Voluntourism has become a multi-billion dollar industry. This means that billions and billions of dollars are exchanged based on creating a facade for North American students that they are helping. I could think of about 1 million different ways that countries can exchange billions of dollars between them where outcomes aren’t solely one-sided.

North American university students, you’re welcome to come visit Costa Rica. Come see the beauty of the country, enjoy the beaches, and make connections with the incredible people of this country. You’ll feel very welcomed here, and Ticos will go out of your way to make your stay wonderful as you experience the beauty of this country. If you want, I’ll even show you around, but the picture of Costa Rica that you will get from me will not be of the Costa Rica that is hurting or needs your help, nor will it be the picture of Costa Rica that your university is portraying to you in order to collect your money to send to the masterminds behind these facades so that they can get their numbers of international students up.

If I can depart with any words of advice for those students who will board the plane towards Costa Rica with glowing visions to help, it would be this: When you arrive in your scrubs to your “underserviced” Costa Rican village, don’t tell the Ticos that you have come from North America to help them. You’ll likely be met with a puzzled look and a question as to why they need you there, as Ticos can, and have stood on their own two feet and haven’t asked for our help.

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