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Costa Rica Calling

Can we really make the world a better place and widen students’ worldview in just 14 weeks? A journal of one interactive project experience.

April 2, 2003 It’s just after six o’clock in the evening and two tables are heaped with pizza boxes in Salisbury Lounge. Outside, icy rain is turning lingering snow banks to mush. Twenty-one sophomores slouch in chairs and sip cans of soda. Tonight they’re force-fed all the dos and don’ts of their interactive project trip to Costa Rica: Drink bottled water. Don’t call emergency numbers if you are locked out of your room at 2 a.m. If you use illegal drugs, you will be sent home. Think twice about getting tattoos and nose rings—HIV/AIDS can be transmitted this way.

Seven three-person teams are preparing to spend nearly two months in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, and complete projects at the decade-old WPI center. Despite the laundry list of regulations, sunny Costa Rica sounds like heaven, even if the biggest oral and written report of your life is due at the end of the trip.

No artificial ingredients, that’s Costa Rica’s official tourism slogan. Home to banana plantations, flaming volcanoes, misty black sand beaches and a thriving modern capitalist economy, it’s a politically and economically stable country. Costa Rica offers a Central American culture where democracy, economic development, and concern for the environment are a way of life. It also has its share of problems, such as outdated waste management practices, endangered wildlife including the marine tortoise, and environmental hazards such as improper disposal of dry-cleaning solvents. Matt Benvenuti ’05 is working with CNP+L, the agency in control of environmental waste, to develop ways to encourage proper disposal of dry-cleaning solvents.

Everyone makes it to San José without incident. On the first weekend, professors Manzari and Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld give the kids a walking tour of the city, then drop them off and challenge them to find their way back to the hotel on their own. On Monday, project work begins in earnest.

Before 1968, this volcano was considered to be just a mountain, known as Arenal Mountain. That year, Crater A provoked a pyroclastic explosion (burning cloud) that destroyed the villages of Pueblo Nuevo and Tabacón, devastating 10 square miles and killing nearly 90 people.

April 15, 2003

H. J. Manzari, project advisor

The most difficult thing for the students to understand is that these projects are constantly evolving, that they’re 14 weeks long, not seven weeks. They seem to think that after seven weeks, they are almost done and that things in Costa Rica will go smoothly and require little new work.

For me, as a first-time advisor, I expect to sleep very little. I need to read the proposals carefully, understand the projects from the students’ point of view, and figure out how best to relay information about Costa Rica’s culture to the students. The two most important items in my bag: clean underwear and a pair of TEVA sandals. I’d like to bring home some artwork, a painting or a drawing that depicts life in Costa Rica. My chief worries are crazy drinking and foolish behavior on the part of some students.

May 10, 2003

Matt Benvenuti ’05

The biggest challenge of my interactive project is the accelerated time frame. It’s been hard; we thought we had our project presentation together but then we got a four-page e-mail from our advisors on what was wrong with it. We eventually have to present this report to our project sponsors and it has to be perfect. For me, speaking in front of people will never be easy, but I can suck it up for the five or 10 minutes I need to.

I thought the group experience would be the hardest part. It’s been the easiest. After two weeks we started calling ourselves a “well-oiled machine.” We are all motivated, busy, and share the same level of understanding.

I have never been abroad and I don’t know the Spanish language. That might be a problem. I’ve accepted that I’m going to rely on others. I plan on bringing back coffee and hammocks. I anticipate the interviews with the dry cleaner will be the hardest part; only one of us knows the language. Will we get straight answers? I think it will be difficult. It’s not a seven-week vacation, for sure.

May 22, 2003

H.J. Manzari

Things are going fairly well. We began oral presentations. The groups are settling into their jobs and slowly getting over the shyness of being in a new environment and with new people. We spent the weekend at Arenal volcano as a group. This weekend, everyone seems to be headed to the beach. The group has shown some signs of homesickness but, for the most part, they are troopers.

May 23, 2003

Matt Benvenuti

The high point so far was definitely our trip to Arenal, a live volcano. We stayed in a nice hotel at its base. The hotel had a pool and a hot spring, both with water slides, plus a swim-up bar. It also had a small zoo, with crocodiles, fish and a butterfly garden. We hiked around the volcano on Saturday. Sunday we swam in the pond below Lafortuna Waterfall. It was beautiful.

The low point has been living in San José. The city reminds me of a kind of run-down Florida town. It doesn’t fit the label “beautiful Costa Rica” we’ve heard so much about.

The first week here was slow. It took a while to get settled in at CPN+L. Another low point is my inability to speak Spanish. We are enrolled in classes, but two weeks of basic Spanish is definitely not enough to carry on a conversation.

I can’t get used to the laid-back attitude of the people here. Their lifestyle is very different from the fast pace of New York or Boston. It took us numerous requests to get information from our sponsors so we could fix a problem we were having. Still, the project is progressing well. We plan on conducting our interviews next week. I have a feeling that most dry cleaners will be uncooperative and not want to talk to us; if they are doing hazardous things, then why would they be willing to admit it?

I like the price of steak here. It costs only $3 for a package in the store. Many things here are much cheaper. We feel like rich Americans.

June in Costa Rica unfurls like a damp beach towel. Nearly every morning the students wake to blue skies. By noon it’s hot and threatening to storm. Every afternoon it pours, and the rain is followed by warm, humid nights, perfect for prowling around the city’s pubs and eateries.

By early June, advisor Manzari says the dry-cleaning project is going well. One group had significant hurdles: the group working with the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE) had planned to test its educational booklet on fifth graders but the schools have been on strike for a long time, making it impossible. Nearly a month into the trip, the President of Colombia visited San José. Roads were closed and armed soldiers stood on every corner-—something the students had never seen before. One girl was sideswiped by a motorcycle, but she is fine.

For advisors Manzari and Vernon-Gerstenfeld, every day is different, but every day is long. Some days are filled with meetings with sponsors. Two days each week are set aside for group presentations. When everyone regroups at the end of each workday, the professors meet with students or read drafts of their reports. The last students often leave late in the evening or stop by long after dark to deliver pieces to be read for the next day.

The groups are building toward their final presentations, so the professors provide ongoing feedback to help them improve. By Sunday night, June 29, reports must be bound and turned in. Monday morning, the students begin their all-important presentations to their sponsors.

The groups gave their final presentations in Costa Rica and came back to the states in time for the July 4th weekend. Matt returned to his summer job as grill cook at Yogi Bear’s Sturbridge Jellystone Park campground in Sturbridge, Mass. Susan Vernon-Gerstenfeld’s office is filled with stacks of five-inch-thick reports from each of the Costa Rica project groups. The dry-cleaning project was a success, she says. “We were told by one of the officials in charge of keeping the environment clean that laws will be changed there because of the group’s work.”

June 17, 2003

Matt Benvenuti

San José definitely needs a good cleaning. Trash is just lying around all over the place. Our project should be done the end of this week, minus some touch-ups and our final presentation. The group ended up interviewing seven dry cleaners and we still have one interview to go. That’s not too bad, considering we had the potential for 11 interviews. We have found that due to a lack of alternatives, all the leftover dry-cleaning chemicals drain into the sewage system directly, untreated. It’s disgusting. We discovered through research that there is no chemical recycling anywhere in Central America. We will recommend the construction of a central recycling plant for everyone to use.

June 18, 2003

Rose Benvenuti (Matt’s mom)

This has been very nerve-wracking for me, especially with the way things are in the world and Matt never having traveled abroad before. It’s a little strange having people I don’t know take my son to a foreign country. But when I called the school they knew exactly what was going on and I got the sense that the group was very much like a family.

I think this is a great experience for him, to see a different way of life, even to struggle with the language. He came home in the middle of his project for the weekend for his brother’s graduation. He was on his way back to the airport and realized he had forgotten his passport. I guess I’m maturing too: I held back and let him deal with the situation himself. He missed his scheduled flight, but got his passport and caught the next plane.

June 23, 2003

Matt Benvenuti

I feel like we have been marked as loud, obnoxious and destructive Americans. A couple of people gave the whole group that reputation. There are times when I feel like I am in junior high all over again. Sometimes I think if I had stayed in Worcester for my project, I could have done less work, spent the summer with my girlfriend, and gotten an A.

August 10, 2003

Matt Benvenuti

It was great to get home and see my girlfriend. I had fun in Costa Rica and am glad I made some friends on the trip that I will still hang out with now that we’re back home. Having been away from everything for so long, I appreciate things more and have a better idea of what is truly important to me.

Our project definitely has the potential to create some positive change, but it will be up to others to put our results to use. If you had asked me in April why this trip was important to me, I would have said that it was to fulfill a graduation requirement. That’s still one reason it’s important, but as I learned more about it, I learned more about me, and I know now it’s important for other reasons. The project is an important stepping stone to the unique experience of getting to be part of another culture. The project challenged me to work harder than I ever have before. It expanded my capabilities. I don’t know how to better explain it, but I feel like this project helps me understand life and myself better.

Global Perspective Program 2003: San José, Costa Rica

CNP+L: WPI is helping determine how dry-cleaning solvents should be used and discarded by the industry, since many are known carcinogens.

CICA: A research unit within the University of Costa Rica that seeks to manage solid waste.

INTEL: Intel needs a long-term sustainability model for its plants, specifically for the purchase of equipment and supplies.

Bomberos: The firefighters organization of Costa Rica needs a nationwide system for assessing resources in order to maximize services.

MINAE: This organization collects and compiles existing research on marine tortoise species that live and nest in the country.

INCOPESCA: This agency helps assess the market for the farm-raised tilapia and recommends how to improve sales.

Lankester Botanical Gardens: With the largest holdings of orchids in Mesoamerican, Lankester needs a database system to help it tap into funding sources.

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