It is hard to believe that it was one year ago that I was preparing for my trip to Costa Rica. I can remember the excitement and anticipation that I had as the day of departure got closer and closer. I was going shopping for items I thought I may need and spending time with family and friends that I wouldn’t be able to see for a month. All of the preparations were exciting and it was fun to spend time with my mom as she helped me pack. I remember sitting in my room the night before I left with my younger sister, Heather. As excited as I was to go, it was going to be really hard to leave my family, especially my sister, because I was going to miss them so much. We stayed up all night just talking and crying a little but we knew that it would be a good experience for both of us. As I got on the plane from Pittsburgh and began the first part of my journey, it finally hit me that I was going to be spending an entire month in Costa Rica with people I had never met before – not to mention all of the new adventures that lie ahead of me. It was terrifying, but in a good way. I was scared, but my excitement held me together and allowed me to step onto the plane.
I am so glad that I was given the opportunity from the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh to travel to Costa Rica because it was honestly one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and it has had such an important impact on my life. I would not trade it for anything. I met some of the most amazing people during my trip and made so many great friends. There is no way for me to sum up my trip in a few words because so much happened and I did not recognize the changes and effects it had on me until I got off the plane in Pittsburgh and adjusted to life in the United States once again. I was told many times that I would come home a different person and that I would see the world in a new way when I returned, but I did not believe it. I knew what I wanted to be in the future. I knew who I was and I did not think the experience would have that large of an impact on me. My mentor told me that the transition back to the United States would be as difficult as the transition into Costa Rica. I didn’t believe this either. I thought how could I have difficulty adjusting to life back at home? But everything that people told me before I left held true.
The people that I met in Costa Rica, my group leader, Max, my group members, and the Costa Ricans all left lasting impressions on my life. My group of ten from all over the United States and one member from Chile al became such close friends. It was as if we had known each other for years. I still talk to most of them via Facebook and texting. In the one month that we were together we all formed a really close bond that will remain for a long time even though we are all so far apart. My group leader Max was amazing. He was so knowledgeable about his country and was a great tour guide. But this was his job. The part that set him apart from any tour guide was the fact that he connected with each of us on a personal level. He knew that we missed home at times and knew how each of us needed help. He was easy to talk to and really knew how to talk to us. Max was definitely one of the reasons I enjoyed my trip as much as I did and I still communicate with him on occasions.
When I got home, like my mentor said, I had a difficult time adjusting. I missed the friends that I had become so close with and the country that I had lived in and become a part of for the past month. Don’t get me wrong, I was glad to get home and see my family and friends that I had missed so much but I wanted to take them with me back to Costa Rica and all of my new friends. It was strange not waking up in Costa Rica to the sounds of the rain forest or the ocean. It was weird being home and back in the chaos and busy schedules in the United States. Eventually I adjusted back to my normal schedule of soccer and summer assignments and that is when I really noticed that changes that had occurred within me. I was not a completely new person. I still wanted to study biomedical engineering in college and become a medical researcher. I still liked to play soccer and spend time with my friends and family. It appeared like the trip hadn’t changed me too much.
But once the shock of being home wore off I recognized subtle changes in myself. I was more confident in myself. I was not afraid to be who I was. I was not as worried about what others thought of me. I wasn’t afraid to talk to people and try new things. I was more adventurous and outgoing. These were all skills that I learned in Costa Rica. I faced my fears in Costa Rica. I did things I never imagined I would do and it made me grow as a person. I noticed other subtle changes, like the attention I paid to how my actions affected the environment and how I thought of things on a more global level instead of just my community or area. Almost one year later, I still think of my experiences in Costa Rica, the friends I made, and the lessons I learned. It is something that I will never forget because it truly is an experience that has forever changed my life. I am so grateful for the chance the World Affairs Council of Pittsburgh has given me because of the impact it really has made on my life even one year later.
By Heidi Schmidt, 2012 Global Travel Scholar