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Imagine leaving your friends, family and hometown to live in an unfamiliar country and culture where people don’t even speak your language. You’re not sure if you will ever adjust, but this new place soon begins to feel like home as you make connections and learn more about that part of the world. Many study-abroad students lived this experience, and for one University of Northwestern—St. Paul student, this life-changing opportunity brought new insights into herself, the world and God. 

Jenna Herman, a senior Spanish student, recently returned from three and a half months studying abroad in Costa Rica through UNW’s partnership with Student’s International (SI). In Costa Rica, she lived with a host family, took intense Spanish classes and absorbed the Costa Rican culture. 

For Herman, though, this experience fulfilled more than just a requirement for her Spanish major. She chose Costa Rica because she “wanted to experience the Latin American culture and because there was a missional/service-based internship that I would be able to do while I was there.” So, Herman participated in two missions opportunities in addition to her classes. On a short-term missions trip to Nicaragua, she helped at a trade school, and in Costa Rica, she worked at a tutoring center, helping children ages 6 to 12 with their homework. 

“Being there though, seeing how others live, learning about their history, and realizing that it is their reality is not something that I will ever forget,” Herman says about her missions experience. 

Aside from homework and missions work, Herman also experienced some of the natural and cultural beauties of Costa Rica. Different excursions included

  • Water rafting
  • Visiting a volcano
  • Hiking in the rainforest
  • Visiting beaches 
  • Seeing La Basílica de los Ángeles or “The Basilica of the Angels” in the Cartago province

La Basílica de los Ángeles—a cathedral in the Cartago province that Herman visited. Photo courtesy of Jenna Herman.

“Costa Rica is a beautiful country, so if was fun to spend time with new friends, see the nature, and learn more about the history of the country,” says Herman.

But other than partaking in some unique experiences, did studying abroad have any lasting impact on Herman? She recalls her nervousness “when they were about to drop me off at my host family’s house (strangers to me at the time), and I would only be able to speak in Spanish.” Was it worth putting herself through this stress just to fulfill a requirement for her major? 

“It became a new normal.” 

Soon, though, her host parents became family. She talked with her host mom, they watched TV together and shared meals. She met and spent time with Costa Rican friends. And while she never lived in a city before and now found herself in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, she soon adjusted to city life. As a Minnesota native, “getting to meet new people, experiencing a whole different culture and way of life, and seeing more of the world was very rewarding,” Herman says. 

“There is this instant connection.”

Through studying abroad, Herman learned more about Latin American culture, improved her Spanish writing skills and became more aware of the world. However, the learning didn’t stop there, and studying abroad changed her perspective on faith and relationships. Though a self-described perfectionist, this experience showed Herman that “I of course should work hard in my schoolwork, but relationships sometimes are just as or more important. Making time to invest in and spend time with people matters.” 

When engaging with a new culture, she discovered that “It is important to observe and ask questions and not automatically decide something is good or bad—better or worse. Some things are, but many things are just different.” 

Herman also emphasizes how this experience reminded her that “no matter where you come from or what you look like, if you are genuine Christian, there is this instant connection.”

While in Costa Rica, Herman experienced some of the country’s natural beauty. Photo courtesy of Jenna Herman.

“Broaden your view of the world.”

Many students hope to study abroad, and for those planning to, Herman recommends three things to prepare:

  • Find out about the country 
  • Learn about its culture
  • Learn some language basics

Should everyone study abroad? Not necessarily, but for Herman, “it is something I do recommend as it definitely will broaden your view of the world and maybe some other things as well.”