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York College’s Costa Rica study abroad program sparks passion for travel

Students gather during study abroad trip in Costa Rica.

A bunch of leaves fell from a tree in front of Calindy Holquist. That was the first sign she and her three York College of Pennsylvania classmates weren’t alone in the forest.

She looked up, scanning the branches for movement. There was a flash of white through the leaves — then a face.

Her heart pounded in her chest as she realized what she was seeing. There in the tree, maybe 20 feet from her, was an anteater.

There was no glass separating them, no guide tracking the animal for her. She and her classmates had used what they had learned to spot the creature themselves in the dry coastal forest of Costa Rica.

An ideal place to study abroad

Over January break, Dr. Keith Peterman took his 17th trip to Costa Rica with York College students as part of a short-term study abroad program.

It’s an ideal natural laboratory to study climate change, he says.

Students in the class spent the fall semester in a classroom on campus studying the underlying physical scientific basis of climate change. They talked about the politics of it, how society can affect it, and they research the impacts and vulnerabilities climate change can create. Then, they went to see it in the real world.

“It’s the smell, the taste, the grit, just the feel of the things that are a little hard to describe that you can only understand by being there,” Dr. Peterman says.

Students hiked a mountain in the cloud forest region, visited a butterfly conservatory, got drenched in the rain forest, walked around a volcano, basked in a natural hot spring, and hiked along the continental divide.

Calindy and her classmates were high up on a mountain with a naturalist guide when they saw a toucan. It was much higher on the mountain than it should have been. Change in climate had raised where the clouds were on the mountain, which in turn changed where the toucan could fly to find food and nest.  Arrival of the toucan in the cloud forest now puts other species at risk, most notably, the Resplendent Quetzal.

That hit home for Calindy.

“It made me think more about my personal impact,” she says. “Everything we do here has an impact on everything else.”

Expanding students’ worldview

The focus on this study abroad was climate change, but that’s not the only thing students took away.

“It opens their eyes,” Dr. Peterman says.

Before doing travel abroad with York College, Calindy had only been outside of the U.S.  once — and she’d been with her family.

When she first arrived in Costa Rica, she was intimidated. But she came back with a new confidence in herself and her abilities. After that experience, she knew she could talk and interact with people from different backgrounds — a skill she may need when she graduates with a degree in nursing. She also came back with a passion for traveling.

“I definitely feel like I’m more well-rounded as a person,” she says. “I’ve seen more, and I really have to thank the college for having these kinds of opportunities.”

That’s exactly why Dr. Peterman continues leading these trips.

“I grew up a poor country kid, and I always wondered what was on the other side of the mountain,” he says.

Studying abroad changed his own life and career, and he wants to give others that same opportunity.

“There’s other cultures, there’s other people to meet and experience, and other landscapes and food and just everything that’s out there in the world,” Calindy says. “Having experienced a taste of that I want to see more of it, and I probably wouldn’t have had that without these trips.”