Students Serve as “Catalysts” in Costa Rica

The vast 26,000-acre Monteverde Cloud Forest in Costa Rica attracts thousands of tourists each year, including a group of students from the U who choose to spend their Spring Break there working on service projects.

The students are led by Gina Russo, assistant director of the Bennion Center. Russo teaches the Costa Rica trip for class credit, incorporating elements of the country’s culture and history into the coursework.

Russo spent 11 years living in Costa Rica building networks she uses today to help continue her service and to share it with others.

“It’s been a real gift to be able to share this experience with students from the U,” she said. “We really hit the ground running in order to get the most out of the week we have there.”

There are a variety of activities in which students can participate, such as canopy tours over the rainforest on ziplines to get a bird’s eye view of the region and dinners with local community members who provide students with food grown on their family farms.

Russo said students work with four local communities consisting of more than 250 people from each community. The development association makes decisions on each service project. The student group from the U essentially serves as “catalysts” between the community’s development association and the range of project work that is needed, including building small office spaces, working on cemeteries, putting up fences, painting schools and working on water lines.

“You begin to realize that even though we might not speak Spanish, there are lots of ways to communicate and build relationships without speaking the language,” Russo said. “You don’t have to talk a lot when you’re putting up a fence or mixing cement because there’s a lot that goes on when people are working together to achieve a common goal.”

The Bennion Center subsidizes the necessary funds through the Tanner Endowment, which pays for the supplies and materials that are donated to the local communities in Costa Rica.

“I’m a firm believer in cross-cultural understanding and of international exchange,” Russo said. “We are serving in Costa Rica, but this service is used as a vehicle to promote this cross-cultural communication.”

John Peterson, a junior in biology, went on the Costa Rica trip during his freshman year when his “interest was sparked and he wanted to get involved.” He registered for the class as a political science major.

Peterson said he enjoyed the trip and gained some perspective on international humanitarian aid.

“It got me to think about things differently,” Peterson said. “A lot of times, coming from the United States, we are heavily industrialized. In Costa Rica we got to see people who did things differently, but we learned that it wasn’t necessarily bad.”

He recalled a particular incident of this where students from the U saw a “dangerous” dirt road and questioned why the people of Costa Rica didn’t repair it.

“The truth was that the citizens didn’t want the environment of the rain forest to get degraded by the tourism,” he said. “The dirt road was a natural way to keep the traffic down.”

This year’s trip will run from March 14 to 22. Students can apply online at

“I would encourage students to go because they will want to go to Costa Rica,” Peterson said. “The trip is awesome, and it’s beautiful there, but I think the learning is worth even more.”

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