Traveling abroad can be a life-changing experience. This summer, The Experiment in International Living — World Learning’s flagship people-to-people exchange program — brought nearly 200 high school boys from across the United States to Costa Rica for 16 days of cultural immersion. This custom exchange program was designed in partnership with The Fellowship Initiative (TFI), an intensive academic and leadership training program for young men of color that’s sponsored by JPMorgan Chase.
These young people hailed from four cities with TFI mentorship programs: New York, Dallas, Chicago, and Los Angeles. For many of the students, it was their first time leaving the U.S. — and they had high hopes for what they’d gain from the experience. World Learning spoke with three of the students upon their arrival in the capital San José, and then again before their departure to find out how their immersive journey broadened their perspectives on the world.
Brooklyn, New York
Justice Vincent arrived in Costa Rica eager to learn about its culture. Having grown up in the melting pot that is New York City — Vincent lives in Brooklyn, where his own family’s Trinidadian cultural heritage mixes with cultures from all over the world — Vincent wasn’t sure what to expect from a country with a more distinct identity. His only experience abroad had been to the Caribbean.
Beyond learning about Costa Rican culture, Vincent was also looking forward to getting to know people from the other TFI cities. Not only would that help him build a network for college and his career — Vincent is interested in studying biochemistry or psychology at an Ivy League university before going on to law school — but he also wanted to have new friends he could visit across the U.S. “I think it’d be good to have at least one guy from the other cohorts that I can call a brother,” he said.
Just as he’d hoped, Vincent left Costa Rica with two new good friends: Ace from Los Angeles and Darius from Chicago. He had bonded with both through music — Vincent loves listening to music and dabbles in poetry — and spent hours with Ace playing games like chess and rummy. The homestay made it easier to make those friends. “Without the homestay, I wouldn’t have had the bond that I have with my brothers,” he said. “I would have just done my thing alone.”
Vincent’s homestay also helped him understand Costa Rican culture. He was amazed by how open and accepting people were in his host community. “I wasn’t really prepared for that,” he said. “In New York, you’ve got to kind of be rough on the edges. Even if you’re soft on the inside, you’ve got to give the impression that you’re ‘gangsta,’ so you can’t be messed with. Out here you don’t got to worry about that. If it’s a façade, you don’t have to wear it. And if it’s not, you can still open yourself up and relax.”
By the end of his homestay, everyone in town felt like family to Vincent. But he was especially touched by the way he was embraced by his host family. “When I was leaving, both my tia and my abuela started tearing up,” he said. “That hit home. That’s kind of been engrained in me now — the values they have in their culture and in their home to always be open. That’s going to come home with me. If you need something, even if you’re not my family or my friend, if I can provide it for you then I’ll give it to you.”
For some of the TFI fellows, traveling abroad was just a perk of joining the college prep program. For Fernando Cervantes, this trip with The Experiment was what attracted him to TFI in the first place. “I thought it would give me a new perspective on the world,” said Cervantes, a high school student from Dallas, Texas, who is interested in pursuing either engineering or journalism.
Cervantes wasn’t terribly worried about adjusting to Costa Rican culture going into the trip. His parents are from Mexico, so he’s traveled to Latin America before and speaks Spanish fluently so he knew it would be easier for him to adapt to Costa Rica than it might be for some of his TFI brothers. So he arrived in San Jose excited just to learn more about the country and its people.
“It’s still a new place, new customs, new people, new sayings,” he said. “My goal is to learn from the families at the homestay since they have a whole different perspective of life than me.”
Cervantes certainly made the most of his homestay. He quickly settled in with his host family and befriended other teenagers in the community, playing soccer in the afternoons, going to parties in the evenings, and exchanging stories about their respective cultures. Cervantes was intrigued by their stories of high school life in Costa Rica — for example, that the local high school allows students to specialize in subjects like tourism or history. “We made a little community just from four days,” he said.
Another fulfilling part of the homestay was the community service project. Cervantes and his TFI brothers worked together to make repairs to a local hotel and greenhouse. “At home, I do community service, but it’s kind of cool that you’re doing something for the community that’s not where you live,” he said. “You know you left part of yourself in Costa Rica.”
Before he left, Cervantes exchanged contact information with his new Costa Rican friends. Should they ever visit Dallas, he will be ready to welcome them with open arms.
Kalene Murphy was floored by the beauty of Costa Rica when he arrived with The Experiment. He hadn’t known much about the country before finding out about the trip — and he’d never traveled internationally before — but as an aspiring teacher, he knew that he wanted to take as much as he could get out of the experience.
Not only did he want to learn about Costa Rican culture and values, but Murphy was also determined to learn Spanish. During the first days of the trip, he participated in Spanish language classes on the bus and sought some tutoring from his TFI brothers who are native Spanish speakers. He looked forward to practicing those new skills even more throughout the rest of the trip. “I feel like being here in Costa Rica is giving me a glimpse of what the Spanish culture can offer and the benefits of being bilingual,” he said.
After more than two weeks of cultural immersion, Murphy felt closer than ever to his goal of being bilingual. His host mother helped him practice, saying phrases like “do you want salt” over and over again until he understood and could repeat them. Before he left Chicago, Murphy rated his Spanish abilities at a 3 out of 10. Now, he’s a solid 7. “I can understand it to the point where I can put words together,” he said. “I feel like I can go to a Spanish-speaking community and order food or something like that.”
Murphy grew so confident in his Spanish-speaking skills that he even gave a short speech in Spanish at a farewell party toward the end of his homestay. Both the students and their host families had gathered in a big circle to take turns sharing their highs and lows of the experience. Though most of the students spoke in English — with native Spanish-speaking students providing translation for the host families — Murphy decided to give it a shot in Spanish. Though he couldn’t remember what he’d said, he knew that the confidence he’d gained will be invaluable as he returns home to Chicago.