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Hidden treasure

A lush setting and a close-knit community provide an ideal learning environment at UGA's Costa Rica campus

by Allyson Mann (MA '92)



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The beetle lies in the middle of the table. Its dark brown body, about an inch long, is completely still. Students crowd around watching intently. Suddenly, with an audible snap, the beetle launches itself several inches into the air and lands right side up on the table. Two glowing yellow spots are visible on its back.

“That’s a headlight click beetle,” says Philip Careless, placing the beetle on its back for another demonstration. “Like fireflies, they mix two chemicals to produce the bright light coming from the two spots on its back. The clicking helps them escape danger.”

Careless is an ecology teaching assistant at UGA’s study abroad program in Costa Rica, but this demonstration is not taking place in a classroom or laboratory. The students are in the comedor (dining room), and the beetle is lying on the table where dinner will be served in a matter of minutes.

Welcome to UGA’s Costa Rica campus.

***

When the Costa rica property was acquired six years ago, UGA academic and administrative staff knew they faced numerous challenges in creating the university’s first full-service international campus. The few buildings that existed lacked the amenities needed to house and educate students. But the potential was there; the 153-acre site, located in the San Luis Valley, offered extraordinary biological diversity, incomparable scenery and a year-round temperate climate.

In 1997 the university began sending ecology students to the site, then called the Ecolodge. The UGA Foundation purchased the property for the university in 2001. Some questioned how such a site could meet the university’s needs. Others questioned whether a critical mass of students would be comfortable in an isolated setting. But the Costa Rica campus has proven a popular destination for UGA students, who go year round to study visual arts, entomology, creative writing and geology, among others.

“Things that were seen as impediments have proven to be very, very attractive to students,” says Judith Shaw, associate provost for international education.

***

“We are the ones in whom the care of this planet is now invested,” ecology professor Jim Porter tells the students gathered for his lecture on the growing world population versus available land resources. He tenses like a tightly coiled spring before unleashing the following in a hushed voice: “The expense to the natural world is irretrievable.”

Porter’s lectures are known for their impact. Packed with visual information—photos, news footage, graphics—they’re designed to keep students’ attention in a 400-seat lecture hall, which is how the class is taught in Athens.

But in Costa Rica, Ecology 1000 is a small class, with just nine students enrolled this spring. Porter teaches in a room that barely holds them and the half dozen staff members who attend voluntarily. The barrage of information, plus Porter’s passionate delivery, can be overwhelming in such a small space. There are two common reactions—applause or tears—at the end of his lectures.

“My favorite thing about the program here is the different style of learning—how everything we learn we experience,” sophomore Jessica Lopez says. “In anthropology we learn about people who live a certain way and then go meet them. ”

After learning about butterflies in the classroom, Porter and his students hike into the cloud forest with butterfly nets. The samples and information they gather will be shared with Costa Rica’s Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad. In 2006, donations from Porter’s students increased the butterfly species list in the state of Puntarenas by 6 percent.

“I like that we’re actively helping Jim Porter with his research,” junior Ali Hunt says. “I’m not just mounting butterflies to mount butterflies. I’m helping with Porter’s research because it’s happening where I live, and I’m also helping with Costa Rica’s conservation.”

Hunt was one of 19 students enrolled in the Franklin College spring semester program. The size of the group and their constant proximity—they live, eat and travel together—foster closeness and encourage strong student-teacher relationships.

“You get so much individual attention,” freshman Brittany Hannah says. “You can ask as many questions as you want. And the professors really care about what you’re learning.”

***

UGA’s campus is located in central Costa Rica, nestled between the small farming community of San Luis and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. From the steep, rocky road that leads to nearby Santa Elena, the red metal roofs of the campus are unmistakable. Surrounded by lush green mountains and frequently framed by rainbows that arch over the valley, the red roofs blend into the landscape, creating a peaceful vista.

“The design model for residential centers in different parts of the world has been largely dictated by the location and local culture, and this setting presented a series of unique challenges,” Shaw says. “We had to expand the facility to serve the number of students we wanted to attract.”

UGA offers more than 150 study abroad and exchange programs in 61 countries; three of those—Oxford, England; Cortona, Italy; and Costa Rica—include property purchased for the university by the UGA Foundation (Oxford and Costa Rica) or the UGA Real Estate Foundation (Cortona). But Costa Rica is the only study abroad site that functions as a campus, offering academic, residential and service facilities on site.

When the UGA Foundation purchased the property for $895,000 in 2001, significant improvements were needed. Faculty member Gregg Coyle and his environmental design students developed a campus master plan, and Coyle oversaw its implementation. Funding from donors, the UGA Foundation and the UGA Research Foundation was secured to clear land, upgrade phone, electricity and water lines, raze or renovate existing structures and build new ones. Work proceeded rapidly following a 2003 site visit by President Michael F. Adams and then-UGA Foundation Chair Jack Rooker (BBA ’60). The total investment from all sources, including the original purchase, is more than $2 million.

Today students use neat gravel pathways to get from their bungalows to the new open-air classroom—rebuilt in 2006 with solid walls on two sides—and the climate-controlled laboratory. The student union, the heart of campus, includes the comedor, library, computer lab and a porch. A new classroom, bungalow and recreation center are under construction; they incorporate the red roofs, white walls and wood seen in the other buildings, blending in with the surrounding environment.

The vibe falls somewhere between summer camp and college campus, but the mercurial spring weather makes it clear that this is not Georgia. The wind whips constantly and clouds roll above as if on fast forward. The sun disappears and reappears, as does a fine mist called pelo de conejo (rabbit fur) by the locals. White-faced capuchin monkeys play in the trees, and brown jays call “pyah, pyah” as they fly overhead.

John Spalding (AB ’82, JD ’85), chairman of the Arch Foundation, visited the campus for the first time in March.

“You can see the work done here—the relationship with the environment, the relationship with the community. You can see the students and what they’re learning about themselves and the environment. You can see it’s a very positive place.”

***

On a Saturday afternoon in March, Costa Rican Cristina Leitón attended a baptism in San Luis with her family. During the ceremony, Leitón’s 5-month-old son José Miguel began crying and needed to be taken outside. So Leitón handed him to American Courtney Johnson, a freshman enrolled in UGA’s Costa Rica program.

“They feel she’s part of the family,” says Sofía Arce Flores (MS ’06), who witnessed the moment.

Johnson met the family during her two-week homestay, a requirement of the Costa Rica program. The length of the visit varies for different programs, but each student lives with a family in San Luis, getting to know the local culture.

“You don’t have to speak the same language to form a connection with someone,” says sophomore Rachel Robertson.

The students are reunited with their homestay families at community events like soccer games and dances.

“We see this place not just as a UGA campus located in San Luis but as part of the community of San Luis,” says Quint Newcomer, director of UGA’s Costa Rica program.

UGA has hosted a park ranger conference, provided labor to clean up the local cemetery and, with help from the UGA Athletic Association, purchased uniforms for the local youth soccer team. One of Newcomer’s pet projects is the building of a bridge and culvert—funded at his request by the Classic City Rotary Club—that will make it possible for local children to attend school during the six-month rainy season.

Virgilio Brenes is business manager for UGA’s Costa Rica campus, and he’s also a native of San Luis. At first he was concerned that UGA would overshadow the town.

“Luckily the University has been careful, taking small steps and consulting the community,” he says. “Today people consider this place as part of the community and as a neighbor.”

***

Newcomer was finishing a doctorate in social ecology at Yale University when he took the job at UGA.

“Our program was at a very young stage,” says Newcomer, who lived in Costa Rica during the 1990s. “That made it more interesting to me.”

When Shaw hired Newcomer in the fall of 2005, one of their primary goals was to make the property cost effective and sustainable as an ongoing study-abroad site. They have worked to achieve this by expanding the curriculum beyond ecology, recruiting faculty from disciplines that are enhanced by the Costa Rican setting—Spanish, anthropology and environmental writing, among others.

“We’re focused on taking advantage of the circumstances and features of specific places,” Shaw says. “I don’t see much success in picking up UGA and recreating it abroad.”

Newcomer also included core, or required, classes, making it possible for freshmen and sophomores to participate in study abroad without falling behind. And he began an aggressive marketing campaign, hiring senior Daniel Meredith, an alumnus of the Costa Rica program, to help. Meredith estimates that since January he’s pitched the Costa Rica program to about 500 students. One common question is cost.

“It’s not cheap to study abroad,” Meredith says. “That’s my least favorite question to answer.”

The cost for the program, not including tuition and fees, varies from $2,000 to $6,000 depending on the length and circumstances of the term. A student enrolled in the fall 2007 program on Land, Language and Culture would pay tuition and airfare plus $6,000—a price that includes lodging, meals and field trips. The cost of room and board on UGA’s main campus during that same time frame runs more than $3,300.

“There are still students at UGA who cannot study abroad because of the cost,” Shaw says. “More scholarship money is definitely needed; nonetheless, the Costa Rica programs are still some of the most affordable that UGA offers.”

Despite the cost, the Costa Rica program is attracting students year round. When Newcomer arrived, the campus hosted five programs for 63 students a year; this year there will be 15 programs for 180 students.

“We now realize that we have to contain growth because we don’t want to impinge on the environment,” Shaw says. “It’s a nice problem to have. No one would have predicted it.”

***

Careless returns the beetle to the outdoors, and the students sit on benches pulled back from long tables. They’re joined by faculty, administrators, visiting researchers and the occasional tourist for dinner served family style. They pass around bowls and platters of traditional Costa Rican fare—rice and beans, salad, chicken, fresh mango and papaya.

After dinner, the students scatter—to their rooms, to the library to study or check e-mail, to a classroom for a movie screening. Sophomores Michael Mendez and Nicole Villaveces join Careless for a night walk, where they’ll use large light cannons to search the trees for mammals and record their findings. Junior Eli Hill checks his moth traps; he’s building a collection for Porter for extra credit.

Local band La Norteñita sets up in the comedor, where the tables and chairs have been moved to create a dance floor. Tonight the dance class, taught for academic credit, is joined by elementary school students visiting from Rock Creek International School in Washington, D.C. The UGA students teach their steps to the Rock Creek students, and staff members drift in after finishing their work. Eventually, the steps give way to a limbo contest.

When he’s recruiting for the program, Newcomer tells students that study abroad is for everybody even if Costa Rica is not right for them. But he’s clearly proud of what UGA has accomplished.

“We offer a real home base, a whole different experience including homestays in a small rural mountain town,” he says. “No one else offers what we can offer.”

***

For more information on the UGA’s Costa Rica study abroad program go to www.uga.edu/costarica.

Donate to study abroad scholarships by contacting Linda DePascale (lindad@uga.edu or 706/425-2949).

Visit UGA’s Costa Rica campus by contacting Esteban Vargas (estebanv@uga.edu).



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PHOTO GALLERY

photos by Allyson Mann

Click on image to enlarge

Illustration by Jason Crosby

Freshman Brittany Hannah releases a butterfly at the Monteverde Butterfly Garden located in Cerro Plano.

UGA's Costa Rica campus, easily identified by its red metal roofs, is nestled between the small farming community of San Luis and the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. Sunlight and moisture in the air often combine to create spectacular rainbows arching over the San Luis Valley. Photo by Jim Porter

Sophomore Stephanie White (left) and freshman Brittany Hannah search for butterflies in the cloud forest near UGA's Costa Rica campus. Costa Rica is one-third the size of Georgia and has 1,500 species of butterfly to Georgia's 150.

Professor Jim Porter marks a butterfly during the ecology class's hike into the cloud forest. Porter's students collected information and samples that were later shared with Costa Rica's Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad.

Junior Eli Hill chats with students at the Escuela Altos de San Luis, the local elementary school. In March, six UGA students visited the school and led games that emphasized English vocabulary.

UGA Costa Rica Director Quint Newcomer (left) inspects a coffee seedling with Justin Welch (MS '06) and Victor Ramirez (right). Ramirez owns a small farm near campus, where he and his wife, Denia Brenes, show visitors how coffee is produced.

Photo by Dave Cheung


Photo by Peter Frey