ith a sizable Hispanic population in Indiana, Purdue University thought it was important for Extension educators to get a feel for Hispanic cultures.

For the first six days of March, the university sponsored a Costa Rica Cultural Immersion Experience trip for seven educators, including Lauren Neuenschwander, a health and human sciences/food and nutrition educator with Purdue Extension Jackson County.

While there, they learned about the country’s history, health care and educational systems, agriculture, religion and more.

Purdue has offered trips to Costa Rica for leadership programming through Extension, but not for the health and human sciences part. The trip was made possible through a grant, and the only expenses for the educators were passports and items needed for traveling.

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“I think any time you get a chance to travel, whether it’s just locally or nationally or internationally, you learn more about people and how different people are but also how similar people are,” Neuenschwander said.

“People in other countries have real similar values that we do,” she added. “They might live differently than we do, but at the end of the day, family is important to them and culture and all of the same things that are important to us. I think that was really interesting to see and learn.”

Before leaving on the trip, the seven educators heard from people who had been to the country before and learned about passports, recommended immunizations and what the administration team wanted the group to accomplish.

In October, they also spent a night with a host family in Franklin, which has a large population of people from Mexico, and learned some Spanish.

On March 1, the seven educators and an interpreter flew from Indianapolis to Chicago before heading to Costa Rica. CATIE graduate school representatives picked them up from the airport in San Jose and served as their tour guide. They stopped at a Catholic church to learn about the nation’s religion.

The next day, in Turrialba, they first met a woman who is from America but has lived in Costa Rica for 25 years as a nurse practitioner and midwife. She talked about the health care system, which focuses on preventive care.

Paraprofessionals go door-to-door and make sure people have had their immunizations and annual exams. If not, they do it for them in their home. If they find any problems, the refer them to care.

The next stop was a preschool education center for low-income families. Parents go there with their children, and they eat a meal together and have education separately.

“They are trying to role model healthy behaviors and healthy meals,” Neuenschwander said. “That’s why they have the parents there for so long, so that they can see the importance of it.”

The educators then met Dona Miriam, a 92-year-old woman who delivered more than 2,000 babies when she was a midwife.

“She knew a lot, and she was very interesting to listen to, just her skill and her stories,” Neuenschwander said. “Her mom and grandma did it, so she just kind of learned. She did her first delivery at 14, and she had her first baby at 15. She had 19 kids of her own and delivered them all, too.”

Their second full day revolved around agriculture, first visiting with a couple whose family members have always been producers. They said people used to concentrate on one or two crops, but they learned it was best to have several.

“They found that they had quite a bit of trouble when they would have large infestations or if they would get some sort of crop disease and it would wipe out everything they had, and that year basically would be like a bust,” Neuenschwander said.

“(The man) also is an organic farmer because he has noticed that when you only grow one crop, but even if you have multiple crops, it can really drain the soil of nutrients if you do it year after year,” she said. “So the organic farming helps the soil retain its nutrients. He was really big into the sustainability and organic and all of that stuff.”

The couple have a large garden with a variety of herbs, vegetables and fruits, and the woman processes and packages coffee. They also have goats, pigs and chickens and use the manure for their soil.

That night, the group went to a restaurant high up on a mountain. Neuenschwander said most meals consisted of rice, beans and fruit, and the preferred drink with a meal was some type of juice.

On the third full day, the educators traveled to the coastal resort town of Cahuita. Neuenschwander said that area had a lot of Caribbean influences, from the music to residents’ African descent.

They boarded canoes and took a 45-minute trip to Yorkin to learn about the indigenous self-sustaining population. Most of the people there work in tourism, and that group is headed by women.

“They have this community, and they made all the decisions, and the women are technically in charge,” Neuenschwander said. “They have men on the board and helping, but it’s the women who are in the leadership positions, which is really kind of interesting.”

The group was served a meal, received a bow and arrow lesson, saw the huts where people live, found out how chocolate is made and learned about the history of Yorkin. They closed the day by going back to Cahuita for dinner on their own.

The next day, along their four-hour drive back to San Jose to fly home, they stopped by Braulio Carrillo National Park to check out the rainforest.

Now that the group is back in America, they will soon give presentations about their trip. One will be at the Home and Family Conference in Indianapolis in June.

They also used a video camera during the trip and will edit that down and put it on YouTube, and they are looking into applying for a grant that would offer viewings and discussions of a documentary PBS created about Hispanics and Latinos in the United States.

Another aspect is the Train the Trainer project, where the educators will develop a program to teach others ways to lead educational programs for the Hispanic and Latino population.

“If you’re talking to the Hispanic or Latino population, that population might have a different cultural view that we might want to better understand in order to do any educational programs with them,” Neuenschwander said.

“That was really the point of going to Costa Rica, is just to learn more about the culture and be sort of culturally immersed in it,” she said. “I think it helps us as educators to know what it feels like when you go to another country and you’re the minority and you don’t speak the language. It’s difficult and kind of strange and scary, so that can be helpful, too, just to know what that feels like.”

At a glance

Fast facts about Costa Rica

Population: 4,331,000

Capital: San José (1,085,000)

Area: 51,100 square kilometers (19,730 square miles)

Language: Spanish, English

Religion: Roman Catholic, Evangelical

Currency: Costa Rican colon

Industry: Microprocessors, food processing, textiles and clothing, construction materials

Agriculture: Coffee, pineapples, bananas, sugar, beef, timber

Exports: Coffee, bananas, sugar, pineapples, textiles

Located in Central America, Costa Rica has coastlines on the Caribbean Sea and Pacific Ocean. The tropical coastal plains rise to mountains, active volcanoes and a temperate central plateau where most people live (San José, the capital, is here).

The only country in Central America with no standing army, it enjoys continuing stability after a century of almost uninterrupted democratic government.

Tourism, which has overtaken bananas as Costa Rica’s leading foreign exchange earner, bolsters the economy. A quarter of the land has protected status. The beauty of rainforest preserves draws more and more visitors.


Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at or 812-523-7080.