It’s 5 o’clock on a recent Tuesday at a palm-fringed beach in Costa Rica, where Lecturer Dave Kestenbaum ‘02 wears a grin that stretches nearly as wide as the mountains and sunset behind him. This sunset, or puesta del sol, over the Golfo Dulce sees 20 students from UVM’s Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources (RSENR) digging their toes into the sand after a day of lectures on rural development followed by meetings with members of a clean beach initiative, a local fishermen’s association, and other community partners.
“What has struck me most about this trip is the sheer amount of opportunities we’ve had — every single day there has been a new organization we’ve been talking with,” says Meredith Maloney ’20, an environmental sciences major. “I am so impressed by how well this trip has been organized and planned.”
Maloney and fellow UVM students will now stay for 12 weeks on the Osa Peninsula, a place that holds 2.5 percent of the world’s biodiversity. During the previous three weeks of their semester abroad in Costa Rica, the students learned about the foundations of sustainability in five different regions of the country and visited with representatives from the Costa Rican Government Ministries, leaders of ecological restoration projects, and local farmers.
This is the first year that UVM is offering this 15-week, 17-credit spring semester abroad program in Costa Rica, where students are learning about sustainable development by blending the academic content of five intensive courses with hands-on experiences in the field meeting community partners.
“In the morning, we learn these concrete concepts of economics, but then we actually go see it in action,” says Jessica NeJame ’19, who is majoring in environmental studies. “They’re really challenging us to take that book learning to the field.”
“This is a unique program; we are the first university to host a semester abroad in this region,” says Kestenbaum during a video interview, while pausing to point out a rainbow on the horizon. “Instead of outsourcing to a third-party provider, we’ve built a program from the ground up that integrates many of the RSENR core curriculum requirements and allows students to connect with UVM faculty and be in the field.”
Kestenbaum knows a thing or two about sustainable development, rural communities, and conservation, having set up community-based ecotourism programs in Central and South America before acquiring his master’s in natural resource planning from UVM. For his master’s project, he developed a tourism development strategy for a national park in Honduras. In the late 1990s, he and Professor Walt Kuentzel began researching how to give students an in-person look at international economic diversification. They first brought students on a short trip to Costa Rica in 2000.
“It’s an area of incredible biodiversity that is undergoing intense pressures of rapid social change,” says Kuentzel, an expert in environmental sociology, recreation, tourism, and rural development. “The Osa Peninsula is the perfect place to wrestle with the complex and vexing problems of people in a resource rich environment.”
The first trips to Costa Rica took place during UVM’s winter break, followed later on by a spring-break option, totaling 24 short-term courses in Costa Rica and serving nearly 500 students when combined with the instructors’ course offerings in Tanzania, Ireland, China, and Honduras. The launch of a semester-long program demonstrates both instructors’ passion for sustainable development initiatives and their desire to pass this knowledge onto to the next generation.
“We work to maximize the 111-day experience, with students learning about biological and social sciences while also developing a first-hand understanding of the real-world challenges faced by small and large players in civil society, the market, and government,” says Kestenbaum. “The goal is to go from understanding to the applied throughout the semester."
“Our new program takes a much deeper dive into the challenges of sustainability and the opportunities for integration – themes that lie at the core of the Rubenstein School’s mission,” says Kuentzel.
The students’ semester culminates with a capstone service-learning project designed in collaboration with Community-University Partnerships and Service-Learning and community partners in Costa Rica. Among their partners are the Ministry of Energy and the Environment; the Golfo Dulce Forest Reserve; the Association for Integrated Development for the Town of La Palma; Finca Kobo, a cacao and chocolate producer that is also developing an amphibian pond on the property; and Osa Conservation, which studies jaguars and peccaries and has set up a network of camera traps in Central America to monitor populations.
As they live and work on the Osa Peninsula, the RSENR team is finding new programs and new partners in this rural area of Central America. They are continuing to create long-lasting relationships in surrounding communities and influencing the student community back home in Burlington, Vermont.
“Students have changed majors to RSENR; it has inspired new career tracks; a few alumni have gone into the Peace Corps after taking our travel courses,” says Kuentzel on how the Costa Rica courses have affected students. “It’s all about the sort of experiential education that effectively brings academic concepts to life. It’s one of those high-impact learning experiences that we value in RSENR."
As the sun sets over the horizon, the RSENR students continue on their 15-week journey encountering educational and life experiences that will leave long-lasting impressions. “This has been a truly amazing time for me,” says natural resources major Jason Chrysanthis ’20. “It shows so much more than what a PowerPoint can show you in the classroom. Place-based studies are essential to a true understanding of how a different culture lives, acts, and feels."
Follow this year’s students on their UVM Costa Rica Semester Abroad 2018 Facebook group and #uvmcostarica on Instagram. Applications are now being accepted for Spring 2019. Visit go.uvm.edu/costarica.