Stop Portraying Costa Rica as Deficient to Pad University Students’ Resumes

It’s no secret that I have been a pretty tough and outspoken critic of the activities undertaken by higher education institutions in their missions to internationalize. I have gone to being relied upon to deliver high-quality international “service” programs, to being incredibly burned by my lack of knowledge or suitability for the field, to recognizing that I have a role in bringing eyes to the exploitative practices of these programs. I have a few enemies in academia right now as a result. I’m okay with that.

I am having a bit of a hard time swallowing what I already highlighted to be exploitative practices going on that brings North American students into countries like Costa Rica (where I live) and allows them to perform medical functions within the local medical system. This month, hundreds of young people from all over North America will be descending upon communities in the Global South for “service”.

These programs advertise the opportunity for students to visit countries in the Global South (as well as impoverished parts of Canada & US), telling them the story that these countries are “anxious [sic – eager?] to benefit from the knowledge, passion, and hard work of students”.

In Costa Rica, students of usually non-medical related disciplines who are no older than 22 years of age are taken to a remove village to work in medical clinics. Last I was involved in it, these students would put on medical scrubs and perform medical triage functions like taking down notes, writing down patient concerns, taking blood pressure, and notifying community members about these medical clinics.

All the while, they are being told that the country is just waiting to benefit from their knowledge.

The Imposition in the Machine

The whole time that I was working within Community Engaged Learning, or what they sometimes refer to as “Community Service Learning”, I always advocated, to a fault, that we pay more attention to the community outcomes. In a nutshell it goes like this: The narrative that we would tell students is that there were deficiencies in the systems of host countries, and that there was something to be benefitted by these countries by the students’ service. Then we would sell students a $3000 package of a fabricated service experience in which they would be “responding to community defined needs” while of course getting the opportunity to add things to their resume that would make them more attractive on the job market.

Before the students leave, they are put through a few hours of group activities known as “predeparture orientation” which focused on safety, accommodations, itinerary, logistics, and where possible, they do critical evaluations of the type of work they will be doing. They talk about the spectrum of service and engagement, and are sure to remind students that their presence is not an act of charity. However, not much more is done to work on intercultural sensitivity; nor are they adequately emotionally prepared for some of the things that they may be exposed to while away.

What results is a very inadequately prepared student body who are put into situations with a lack of cultural sensitivity and who are going to places believing they will provide some sort of insights or knowledge on how these countries can do better.

How Do I Know?

I know this because I was part of the problem. I was wholly unprepared, uneducated, and unsuitable to be providing this kind of experience to students without being fully understanding of the intricacies of learning myself.

Anyone who worked with me closely knows that I had the international portfolio thrust into my bucket of responsibilities despite my acknowledgment that I was not adequately educated or trained to handle such a responsibility.

I did my best with what I could: I pulled together resources, readings and accounts of others’ experiences of working abroad for different causes. I learned of the inequalities of power, privilege and the need to look at our experiences through a lens of privilege. As a Master of Education, I did my best to understand the learning process that occurred when students go through these experiences; it was actually the large focus of my independent research.

What I learned in my own international experiences, first “serving” at a school on Guatemala and then working within a university in Kenya and meeting organizations in Rwanda that my previous academic approach, as well as the approach we had been taking to our international engagements, fell completely flat.

I learned of my naivety very quickly, as at the same time, was highly criticized for my approach to my learning. In the end, I threw in the towel, recognizing I could no longer be a part of these kinds of programs and I was unfit to do so. I became an outspoken advocate ever since.

Living in a Host Country as a Further Enlightening Experience

Now that I live in Costa Rica, I have been exposed to a new perspective that I hadn’t yet acquired until I left North America to live here. As a “guest” in the country of Costa Rica, I have been able to both face my own privilege head on while recognizing how unnecessary it is for university students to examine their own privilege via unsuspecting communities.

The trips to Costa Rica that are medically-focused, while never agreeing with the ethics behind them before, have taken on a new kind of “wrong” for me as I observe the rhetoric (propaganda) being used to attract students to these programs while observing the reality of what is actually going on here.

You see, Costa Rica has one of the most advanced medical systems in the world. It provides universal health care to all its citizens. Most commonly health care is provided through the Caja or the Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS) which is the public health care system. It is available to all citizens and legal residents of Costa Rica, which gives people access to over 10 major hospitals and medical clinics that are set up in almost every community. With an emphasis on preventative care, the Caja gives all those who access it at no cost doctors and specialists visits, diagnostic testing, prescriptions, surgeries, and anything that you would need to take care of your health. The Caja isn’t free, but is based on a premium based on your income, with employers being required to pay a certain portion of the Caja premium. Caja is available without any exclusions for age or pre-existing conditions.

What kills me is this: What part of Costa Rica is asking students who are not medically trained from North America to come work in their clinics to gain their knowledge?

I got into a recent discussion with someone who is fixing to come to Costa Rica with some students next month as part of an Alternative Spring Break program. This person was doing a fundraiser for a certain commodity to help with health conditions in Costa Rica. I asked her in her efforts how much was actually being shared about the health system in Costa Rica and the preventative care available to all citizens in Costa Rica with the students involved in the program. Unfortunately, this person chose to see my questions as a personal assault on her desire to “do good” (which I can be empathetic to) around the world. Unfortunately our conversation ended before I could adequately explain my positioning of recognizing people want to “do good” but were creating narratives that perpetuated the plight of other nations.

Let me get something straight here: I don’t think it’s a bad thing to “do good” in other countries, but when it comes at the expense of ignoring what they already have, painting them as people needing to be “saved”, imposing your views of “how things should be” and it’s done for reasons of personal satisfaction, it does become a bad thing.

Quotas Over Motives

When I began working alongside the international programs within the university system, I did truly believe that they were pure in intention. The creator of the program at the institution most definitely, 100% created these programs with the idea to help others make altruistic contributions all over the world. I learned a lot from watching these programs unfold… but then they became something different.

Our meetings around our programming turned away from how we can help host communities and foster true student learning, and instead focused on appeasing our “higher ups” with meeting quotas. Our strategies became less about creating the most ethical program, and more on how we could attract students, and their money, to these programs. Our actions for recruitment were not focused on giving people incredible experiences of global connection, they became about making sure we had enough students sign up so to show how globally relevant the institution is.

We were subject to incredibly inexperienced academics placing rules and restrictions on the way study abroad programs could be conducted; the information that was trickled down to us, usually only half thought out and fully misinformed, showed a glaringly obvious emphasis on numbers and zero care for the communities we’d be visiting through these programs.

I can remember in one meeting with my superior, revealing I was highly conscious of community outcomes for our programs to the point that it was where I put most of my focus on – because after all, how could I not? The answer to that was “you have to stop caring about the community as much”. This was one of the many straws that broke the camel’s back.

Do Students Want This?

As I have broken away from the community of international learning, I’ve observed that students have become incredibly enlightened in their views towards international learning or international Community Service Learning. I have been fortunate to have some students contact me after reading some of my pieces on international learning with a very real concern that the international programs that were promoted at their institution were unethical. They have looked beyond the rhetoric of “making change” and have been able to see the foundation of these programs crumble.

Last I heard from more than a few insiders and fellow critics who often write on this topic, the pre-departure preparation that is given to students for their international experience has been completely watered down. There is less emphasis in intercultural communication, cultural humility, and the dynamics of power and privilege, and more emphasis on building hard skills like how to bang a nail, or at least this is what I’ve heard. I understand this – I was expected to “train” students how to interact in the world before I had even the slightest clue on how it actually really works in practice.

What I’m witnessing now is the audience of international learning becoming more sophisticated about the programs and their intention. Host communities know that hosting students from North America will represent a great economic benefit. They also know that they’re “supposed to” be providing students with opportunities to make an impact in their communities. I think they’re also equally aware that as a society, they are in no deficit and in a position of wanting to “learn from” 18-22 year old children without the required backgrounds and specializations.

University students are not responding to these programs either. While universities have made attempts to create new funding initiatives to promote students’ participation, year after year, these programs have open spots, and you’ll see a scramble to get more students in the program at the last minute. The quota needs to be met – both to keep the “per student” cost down and to appease the higher ups who have created some arbitrary number of “world savers” they want to pump out in their PR efforts.

I Can Only Hope

The people who work in these programs are not bad people – not in the slightest – I truly believe that they approach their work with good intentions and with a true and pure heart. They want to see people working together to solve some of the world’s problems. Sadly, academia is always the last to catch up on the rest of the world, so if there is change in these programs to be more ethical with a strong narrative change, it will be slow.

I can only hope that more effort goes in to collecting the impact on host communities as a result of these programs; that not only the students’ experience is highlighted, but we get true, unfiltered accounts of how these programs actually advance the causes of other countries. I can hope that there becomes less of an emphasis on quantity, and more emphasis on quality. I can only hope that the narrative gets changed about the “saviour” of the North American student and more emphasis is placed on learning FROM the communities they visit.

There are days that I feel really bad for the writing I have done that seeks to provide insight onto these programs, they have rightfully so made me a lot of academic enemies. Luckily more days that not, I am glad that I am doing my part to protect communities around the world from misguided intentions. I am glad that my writing is making its way into the hands of students, academics, and host communities.

The world is all of ours to be participants of, but we cannot create future world leaders on misguided intentions.

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