TROY students, Russell County educators explore Costa Rica during study abroad trip

The study abroad group consisting of TROY students and educators from Russell County Schools visited Costa Rica, May 26-June 4.

The study abroad group consisting of TROY students and educators from Russell County Schools visited Costa Rica, May 26-June 4.

A recent study abroad trip to Costa Rica, organized by Troy University faculty members Dr. Meg Milligan and Dr. Paige Paquette, helped to open the door to another culture not only for TROY students, but also for some local educators.

Working through the nonprofit organization Global EDU and with the assistance of TROY Study Abroad Director Sarah McKenzie, the group toured various sites in and around San Jose, Costa Rica from May 26 – June 4.

The idea for the trip that included educators from the Russell County School System, grew out a paper written by Milligan and Paquette, faculty members in the College of Education at the University’s Phenix City Campus, that examined study abroad during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Meg and I wrote a paper about what study abroad looked like during the pandemic,” Dr. Paquette said. “As we were researching that, we looked at the standards and things that educators are required to teach. We realized that there are standards that use terms like global competency and international understanding, which raised the question, ‘how do they teach about those things if they haven’t had that experience?’”

The group enjoys lunch in a home in Costa Rica.

That question and others led the duo to meet with Dr. Brenda Coley, Superintendent of Russell County Schools and a TROY alumna.

“There is a huge TROY base in the Russell County School District, so Meg and I went and talked to Dr. Coley,” Paquette said. “She is a believer in students and educators having the opportunity to travel abroad. She had seen the value of it during a trip to South Korea with Dr. (Dionne) Rosser-Mims (Vice Chancellor of TROY’s Phenix City Campus) a few years ago. The Russell County School Board provided the funding for seven educators – teachers and administrators – to go. Some educators don’t get to travel internationally, so it was a great for these educators to get to go not only experience another culture, but also visit schools in another country. We had an amazing opportunity to meet with the Director of International Collaboration in the Ministry of Education.”

Dr. Coley said the trip opened the door to many opportunities for collaboration between her school district and the country’s Ministry of Education that she hopes to pursue in the future.

“I thoroughly enjoyed meeting and collaborating with the Ministry of Education (MEP). The collaboration was great,” Dr. Coley said. “I think we would like to consider the opportunity to develop a Memorandum of Agreement with the Ministry of Education in Costa Rica. The agreement could possibly include opportunities for teacher intern experiences, exchange students, virtual professional development training, student pen pals, and service projects for their humanitarian program.”

Among the stops on the trip was a visit to the Costa Rican Ministry of Education.

Dr. Coley said the trip afforded her the opportunity to explore another culture, language, and education system. 

“I feel empowered and motivated as a leader,” she said. “It was refreshing to witness unity and a sense of pride in their country. I also have a greater appreciation and awareness of culture diversity as a leader.”

Ashley Roberson, an eighth-grade math teacher and Teacher of the Year award winner, said she incorporate her experiences on the trip in the classroom to help students develop a greater understanding of the world.

“This experience has helped me understand the importance of allowing my students to have a global connection,” Roberson said. “It has shown me how, even though we are different, we share many commonalities. I would like to create a cultural diversity lesson in my class that teaches partly about traditions of Costa Rica and partially about the currency, conversions, and their number system.”

In addition to interaction with the educational system and local schools, the trip afforded participants many other opportunities to experience the Costa Rican culture.

Students and educators also visited chocolate (shown above) and coffee plantations in addition to visits to Poas Volcano, the rainforest and Manuel Antonio National Park.

“We had opportunities to visit hospitals, clinics, schools and various cultural sites,” Dr. Miligan said. “We were able to experience the rainforest and hear about their sustainability efforts. Costa Rica is famous for its sustainable energy policies and sustainable business opportunities as well. We also went to a chocolate farm, a coffee plantation, Poas Volcano and the rainforest and waterfalls. We visited Manuel Antonio National Park, which also has a beach, so we saw a lot of wildlife. It was an incredible intercultural experience for everyone.”

Five TROY students, including two nursing students, attended the trip and had the opportunity to visit a local teaching hospital.

“Our students got to take part in some of their simulations at the teaching hospital,” Dr. Paquette said. “They are using virtual reality to teach their students, so our students got to experience that as well. We had heard about health care in Costa Rica, but we got to see it in action on this trip.”

Health and wellness lessons were not limited to the hospital setting, however.

“We also got to spend a day at the Quitirrisi Indigenous Reserve and got to learn about their life as a tribe, their history and their approach to wellness and dealing with illness,” Dr. Milligan said. “There is just such a wide range of experiences that are possible.”

Those experiences resonated with TROY students who made the trip.

“I will definitely be sharing these experiences with the TROY Nursing Program, as I think my peers will benefit from study abroad experiences like this,” said Kay-Lyn Hornsby. “For example, the nursing school simulation center that we visited was great for implementation purposes.”

As a nursing student, Thomas Jacobs would like to take advantage of more study abroad opportunities.

“I would implement a nursing-specific study abroad trip to view the healthcare systems in various countries,” he said. “It would be open to all nursing majors. (Through this experience) I have become more open to the idea of a socialized healthcare system that offers the option to be treated in private hospitals.”

TROY nursing students who made the trip had the opportunity to experience how a Costa Rican teaching hospital has implemented the use of virtual reality to instruct medical students.

The trip also incorporated a service component through the Costa Rica Humanitarian Foundation. The group had the opportunity to visit and interact with children in the foundation’s centers and brought shoes to donate to the children. The Foundation’s Director Gail Lystrom spoke to the group about the nonprofit organization she founded 25 years ago after serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Costa Rica.

Dr. Paquette hopes the trip will continue to grow, noting that Costa Rica provides an excellent study abroad opportunity.

“I want to increase these opportunities for these educators to participate in study abroad,” she said. “Costa Rica provides a great opportunity because it is very economical. It covers so many aspects of what it looks like to have global competency and have this international understanding. This was a dream for me to be able to do this, so I’m really hoping that we can involve educators from other school systems in the future to expand this program.”

Plans for a return trip are already under way. A course that accompanies the study abroad opportunity or can be taken separately as an elective, Global Identity (EDU-4490 or EDU 5590), will be offered in Term 3 in 2024 and is taught by Dr. Milligan. The trip will follow in late May or early June.

Dr. Milligan said study abroad opportunities provide important lessons for both students and educators.

“We bring our American selves with us on these trips, and then we realize other cultures are different,” she said. “It can be challenging, but it is a part of the experience. It is an opportunity for growth, both personally and professionally.”