Claremont, Calif. (June 14, 2023)—What could a Pitzer study abroad experience look like? Imagine a summer when a lush cloud forest blankets the landscape; when Spanish flows as easily as water; when clinics, schools, and homes open their doors to a rich understanding of well-being in a country with almost universal healthcare. For 25 years, Pitzer’s Costa Rica Summer Health Program has provided students with experiences like these as they discover public health in a new context.
According to the World Bank, Costa Rica is a middle-income country in which the gross national income per capita is $21,150 compared to $70,480 in the United States. However, Population Reference Bureau data reports longer life expectancies in Costa Rica than in the U.S.: 78 versus 73 years for men and 83 versus 79 years for women.
Where does Pitzer come into this?
In the 1990s, Professor Emerita of Sociology Ann Stromberg was working with pre-med students who felt that they couldn’t spend a semester abroad. Stromberg thought that a summer program based on health would appeal to them while engaging them in intercultural education and Spanish learning—an asset in this part of the world.
After trying Guatemala for a year, Pitzer moved the program in 1998 to the Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS), a partner in Costa Rica that had already been hosting individual students.
“Through the years, the program has committed to these fundamentals: a home stay with a family who are co-educators; education in Costa Rican society and culture; intensive Spanish learning; and an internship in education or the healthcare system,” said Stromberg.
The program recently added a half-course in the spring for students to understand Costa Rica’s history, culture, and healthcare system. ICADS Professor Javier Arguedas travels from Costa Rica to Claremont for a week to gauge the students’ Spanish levels and internship interests.
In the past, students have shadowed health outreach workers on home visits; assisted a nutrition program for malnourished pre-school children; conducted field work with a national institute for health research; and worked in hospitals, clinics, community health posts, a school for children with disabilities, and more.
“ICADS arranges amazing internships,” said Stromberg. “They help our students understand the challenges and accomplishments of Costa Rica. They give our students a critical perspective on the role of the U.S. in Central America.”
Students learn about the health status of Costa Ricans, their healthcare system, and issues regarding health and gender, immigration, and the environment.
The program has always included a study trip to a cloud forest, where students explore the beauty, ecology, and water sources. This summer, the second study trip is in Costa Rica’s Caribbean region. On the way, the students see plantation-style agriculture and organic farming as an introduction to agribusiness and its health and ecological challenges. Then they have time in Limón, which has a high percentage of Afro-Costa Ricans, as well as time with the Bribri Indigenous community.
“That gives them a chance to consider the heath disparities for some of the populations of Costa Rica,” said Stromberg.
The Costa Rica Summer Health Program is not just for pre-med students but any major, from dance to political studies. New Resources students who have difficulty leaving for a semester have also participated. Whether students want to fulfill Pitzer’s Social Responsibility Praxis requirement, improve their Spanish, or work in education or healthcare, they expand their horizons in Costa Rica.
“It’s been one of the greatest pleasures of my career for Pitzer to allow me create this,” said Stromberg. “A strong combination makes this program special: the home stay, intensive Spanish, hands-on internships, and raising questions of social justice and environmental health. It’s all part of Pitzer’s mission and ICADS’ mission.”
Stromberg says that it has taken a village to support this program. ICADS’ partnership has included founding ICADS Director Sandi Kinghorn and current ICADS Director Antonio Chamberlain; ICADS Home Stay Coordinators Maria Chavez Res and Rosa Picado; and faculty Helga Jimenez, Gabriel Vargas, Javier Arguedas, and Milton Machuca. Pitzer’s study abroad staff past and present who contributed to the program include Tom Manley, Carol Brandt, Michael Ballagh, Kebokile Dengu-Zvobgo, Jamie Francis, and Mike Donahue.