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Summer Abroad: Connor Chess ’17

Why did you apply for the Wooley Fellowship?

The program I was applying to directly related to the description and criteria of the fellowship. With the financial aid I felt I would be able to more comfortably enjoy the experience, as well as have a motive for documenting and sharing my experience with the school.

What attracted you to the program and destination?

I was interested in further immersion into the Spanish language, as well as work experience for the summer. This program filled both criteria incredibly. I got to study Spanish, apply it to my everyday life, interacting with the people in the small town, and work as a teacher and in a restaurant. Also, I had visited Costa Rica once before and the environment is like none other. It is such a beautiful country and it offers tons of incredible outdoor activities. The educational, work and the outdoor aspects of this program made it an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.

How did you learn about it?

Professor Barnett, my Latin American and Caribbean Studies advisor, told me about the Academia Español de Nicoya program, which he had recommended to other W&L students in the past.

Describe a typical day.

Every day I would wake up around 6:50, get ready for school, eat breakfast with my host family, and be at school by 8. My class lasted four hours, during which my professor and I (in one-on-one training) would talk about the grammar rules we’d previously discussed and do practice problems, as well as simply talk about life and the Costa Rican culture. After class I would eat lunch and grab a smoothie from my favorite smoothie shop, Juice House, and walk down the street to Chari’s (a local restaurant). I worked there for three hours a day, three times a week. I served as a busboy, taking drinks and food to customers, making as much conversation as I could with them in the process. When the restaurant wasn’t super busy, I’d hang out with the waitresses I worked with, talking about their lives, my experience and joking around. After work I had some down time to catch my breath, do some homework and eat dinner before heading to the Liceo Nocturno de Nicoya. There I would teach my English pronunciation and spelling class (in preparation for the Spelling Bee). This was a great way to get to know kids closer to my age, give back to the community, and have a fun time teaching a great group of kids. After teaching, I’d grab some food with a student or teacher, go relax at the park for a while, or just head home to prepare for another day of constant thought (due to constant immersion).

How does your work this summer apply to your studies at W&L?

My work gave me a better understanding of the Costa Rican culture and a tighter grasp on the Spanish language, which both contribute perfectly to my Spanish major and LACS minor. But more than contributing to my formal education, this experience gave me a new perspective on life. The Costa Rican people, while they aren’t necessarily as rich as the United States, materialistically speaking, they are rich in love and happiness. “Pura Vida” is the national saying that means “life is good,” and this is the attitude I found in so many of the people I met.

What was the most unexpected aspect of your experience?

The most unexpected aspect of my experience was the attention I received from the locals in the streets. Nicoya is a small town and definitely not a tourist location. Being so, the locals are not very used to seeing a gringo walking through town everyday. People would stare me down, which made me a little uneasy at times. But I would just smile and wave or say hi to show that I’m a nice guy, and to clear up any suspicions they had about me. The first couple weeks were tough because I thought everyone really didn’t like me, looking at me with these hard faces, but eventually I realized they were just curious. I brought a little bit of W&L with me to Nicoya — the speaking tradition — and it helped to make for a more comfortable transition into me becoming one of the everyday ticos (Costa Ricans) of the town.

What advice would you give to students interested in a similar experience abroad?

I would say that the most important thing to bring with you is a good attitude. Say yes to every opportunity that presents itself and you will get so much more out of the experience than you could ever imagine.

Did the experience influence your studies or future career plans? How so?

I’ve always been interested in Spanish and living/working internationally. This experience strengthened that aspiration and gave me a love for and connection to Costa Rica specifically.

Hometown: Fairfax, Virginia

Majors: Spanish and Politics

Minor: Latin American and Caribbean Studies

Extracurricular Involvement:

  • Men’s Varsity Football Team
  • Phi Delta Theta Fraternity
  • Southern Comfort All Male A Cappella Group

Off-Campus Experiences:

  • Spring Term Abroad 2014 (Cádiz, Spain)
  • 1 Month Internship at Joe Gibbs Youth for Tomorrow
  • Academia Español de Nicoya (Nicoya, Costa Rica)

Favorite Class:

This may not be a fair answer, but my spring term abroad class, SPAN 214 – Contemporary Spain in Context, with Professor Reyes was my favorite class so far. It was my first opportunity to study abroad. I lived with an amazing homestay family in one of the most beautiful cities in Spain. Professor Reyes’ excitement for showing us his homeland made the experience all the better.

Regarding classes on campus, my favorite class has been SOAN 291B – Chanting Down Babylon. I have always been interested in the Rastafarian and Jamaican culture, starting with my love of reggae. This class gave me a great understanding of the roots of the religious movement, the meanings of the music, and the social, economic, and political situation and history of Jamaica since colonization.