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International Endeavors: Ortiz and Paniagua Alejandro Paniagua and Kevin Ortiz participated in an internship with an organization called Fundación Quiróss Tanzi, which works to improve the public education system in Costa Rica.

“These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are invaluable as students seek to gain an appreciation for the globalized world in which we reside.”

Ten Washington and Lee University students were chosen in 2015 for the International Student Collaboration, a program funded by a grant from the Endeavor Foundation. The program allowed five international students to each take home an American student for the summer.

During the summer months, the international students introduced their guests to the food and culture of their homeland and, in turn, saw their home country through new eyes. The pairs also worked on community service and research projects together.

The students recently took a little time to talk about their experiences and how they were affected by the opportunity.

Alejandro Paniagua ’17 and Kevin Ortiz ’16
Studying Public Education
San Jose, Costa Rica

Paniagua and Ortiz journeyed to Paniagua’s home in Costa Rica, where they participated in an unpaid internship with an organization called Fundación Quiróss Tanzi. The organization works to improve the public education system in Costa Rica.

Paniagua is a double major in business administration and environmental studies. Ortiz is from Charlotte, North Carolina, and is double majoring in politics and sociology-anthropology with a minor in education.

What memories about the area you visited will stick with you the most, and why?

Kevin: The thing I will remember the most will be my experiences at Pan-American School (PAS), located near San Jose. Alejandro’s mother, Sra. Dora, teaches biology to middle school students there, and she was able to arrange for me to observe several different classes to compare my experiences in U.S. education with a Costa Rican variant. Pan-American School places a heavy emphasis on student service learning, and I was lucky enough to witness the middle school students plan and execute a service trip to a nearby elementary school that serves poor students. The PAS students spent the day doing a variety of activities with the elementary students, including stations for face painting and a friendly game of red-light-green-light. The enrichment experience taught the PAS students the skills of planning and fundraising in addition to the value of community service and helping others. It was so fulfilling to watch these PAS students in action and interact with the world around them.

What was it like introducing your study partner to your homeland? When you saw it through their eyes, what was different about it for you?

Alejandro: Introducing Costa Rica to Kevin was an amazing opportunity, as it allowed me to have a better understanding of why Costa Rica is the way it is. At first I was somewhat nervous, because I wanted Kevin to have a good experience and like his time in Costa Rica. His eagerness to embrace my culture and his curiosity to know the why of things made everything easier. It became a learning opportunity for both of us, and, in a sense, learning about Costa Rica became a path we both traveled. I feel like by understanding Costa Rican culture, Kevin got to know me better and understand why I am and think a certain way. It opened our eyes to start questioning the reason behind certain beliefs and expectations.

Please briefly describe your project. Why did you choose this topic?

Both: Our project was multifaceted. We wanted to do something that combined all of our major interests, so we spent a month traveling around Costa Rica learning about as much as we could. We focused mainly on three areas: politics, education and culture, and business and the environment.

  • Politics: We met with Dr. Jorge Saeñz, a lead instructor at Costa Rica’s foreign ministry. We talked about the Costa Rican system of government and its similarities/differences with the U.S. government. We also took a tour of the Casa Amarilla, Costa Rica’s equivalent of the U.S. State Department. Finally, we had a discussion regarding the Costa Rican political system with Óscar Aries Sánches, Costa Rica’s former president.
  • Education and culture: We compared private vs. public education in Costa Rica by visiting PAS and by learning about public school institutional needs through an internship with Fundación Quirós Tanzi, a nonprofit that seeks to improve public school education. We also spent a lot of time at Pan-American School observing different styles and approaches to teaching. From a cultural perspective, we were able to visit important national landmarks like La Paz Waterfalls and Manuel Antonio National Park to understand their importance to Costa Rican identity.
  • Business and the environment: Costa Rica is leading the way as a pioneer in utilizing eco-tourism as a sustainable model for economic growth, and so Alejandro in particular was very interested in learning more about this incredible resource for national development. We spent the first week at Veragua Rainforest in Limón at an eco-tourist vacation business. While there, we saw much of the incredible biodiversity that Costa Rica offers and worked at a mariposario (butterfly house). In addition, this opportunity gave us insights into how best to teach others about nature and conservation, two very important societal values in Costa Rica.

What are the most important takeaways from the research to share with the university audience (and beyond), and how do you plan to do that?

Both: Our most important takeaway is that in order to understand a new culture, you must recognize your preconceived notions and strive to be as open-minded as possible. Yes, we are all different in some ways. But different doesn’t mean bad. Comparing different cultures or countries should serve to remind us that beneath our differences we are similar, and we need to learn from our differences to truly embrace one another.

We plan to convey this message by reminding others of the benefits that come with immersing oneself in a new culture. As seniors at Washington and Lee, we will strive to share our experience with others by encouraging others to embrace the study abroad experience. These once-in-a-lifetime opportunities are invaluable as students seek to gain an appreciation for the globalized world in which we reside.

How do you think this project has enriched your overall educational experience at W&L?

Kevin: My trip to Costa Rica was the first time I left the United States and integrated myself with the local population. It was incredibly refreshing to learn about varying perspectives on current political issues, political philosophy, education, the environment, etc. Meeting the people of Costa Rica has helped me have a greater appreciation for the truly global society in which we live, and it allowed me to return to my studies with new ways in which to approach learning.

Alejandro: Education is very important, but unless you live and apply what you learned, it could be fruitless. This project allowed us to apply and live many things we learned at W&L, which made this project even more significant and with more dimensions. It trespassed the boundary between academia and the real world as we saw the opportunity to keep learning and growing in a different setting, but with the same frame of mind.

Read about the other 2016 Endeavor pairs:

Amirah Ndam Njoya ’17 and Jenna Biegel ’17

Meera Kumar ’16 and Oyumaa Daichinkhuu ’16

Wan Wei ’17 and Olivia Howell ’17

Juan Cruz Mayol ’16 and Sam Sheppard ’16