Student Stories

Pura Vida

Welcome to the next installment in our Summer Postcards series! We’re asking our students what they’re up to and how they’re making the most of this summer. Today, we're checking in with rising second-year Rachel Mittelstaedt, who has spent her summer volunteering in Cost Rica through Cross-Cultural Solutions.

-Jessen O'Brien and Susie Allen

As the plane spirals slowly downward, I keep my eyes trained on the window. My heart is racing, and I know that my knuckles are white from gripping the armrest. For the next two months, I’m going to be working with Cross-Cultural Solutions, a US-based international volunteering organization. Beyond that, I know almost nothing. The plane bursts through a cloud, and suddenly I can see a series of rolling, green-carpeted mountains spread out beneath me. A few minutes later, we land in San José, Costa Rica.

Since that landing a month ago, I’ve had an incredibly wide variety of experiences.  I volunteer at my placement for four hours a morning, five days a week. For the first two weeks, I volunteered exclusively at an HIV/AIDS home.  During my third week, I began volunteering at an orphanage/foster home as well. In each location, I usually spend around two hours a day cleaning and doing chores. For the second two hours, I interact with the patients or kids, doing planned activities, working on physical therapy, or just hanging out. Around noon, we return to the home base for lunch, then move on to any activities that have been planned for the afternoon (dance class, Spanish class, or excursions to local attractions).

From Friday afternoon to Sunday evening we have “tiempo libre” that we usually use to travel to other parts of the country. So far I’ve visited beaches on the Pacific and Caribbean coasts as well as one of Costa Rica’s most famous volcanoes. 

Of course, not everything has been perfect. Even though I can speak a fair amount of Spanish, there are still language and cultural barriers to overcome, and it’s often difficult to cope with the knowledge that many of the people that I’m working with have been abused or are very sick. 

However, it’s impossible to explain this experience with only a daily schedule. When I contemplate my time in Costa Rica, I end up thinking about people, places, and innumerable tiny things: the home base, which is decorated by the hand-prints of past volunteers; the cooks, Silvia and Katia, who I bother on a daily basis so that I can practice my Spanish; the streets of Cartago, which wind up and down, left and right, without a single sign to guide the way; the gutters, which are hazardously deep to accommodate the daily rain storms; Antonio, Bernard, Angie, Pablo, and Pedro, who live in the HIV/AIDS home and are friendly, incredible, and inspiring; Doña Melva, who has willingly made 35 abused and orphaned children a part of her own family; the other volunteers, who come from every part of the United States and sometimes from other countries as well; the beaches, volcanoes, and mountains, all of which are completely foreign to me and so inexpressibly beautiful.

All of these things make this trip one of my most incredible experiences. Living, working, and participating in another culture have given me a totally new perspective on my life in the US. At the end of this summer, I know that I’ll be a different person. And so far, all of the changes are good.