Student Leadership Initiative in Costa Rica: Research in Action 2015

Twelve students in SMU’s Student Leadership Initiative (SLI), sponsored by the Embrey Human Rights Program, participated in a service-learning trip to Costa Rica Jan. 2-12, 2015. The SLI students were led by Dr. Howard J. Recinos, Professor of Church and Society at SMU Perkins School of Theology, and Dr. Joci Caldwell Ryan, a lecturer in the women’s and gender studies program of SMU’s Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences.

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Costa Rica: My Beacon of Hope

An update from Jennifer, a junior majoring in human rights and public policy:

Costa Rican countryside

Costa Rican countryside

Traveling to Central America was nothing foreign to me. Or at least that was what I thought when I signed up for the SLI trip to Costa Rica. My family is from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Mexico so I have traveled multiple times to each country.

While the cultures differ from one another, they all seemed to look the same to me in some aspects. With every trip I made to these countries I saw immense poverty, felt fear due to crime, and was filled huge amounts of sadness. I say sadness because I hear my family talk everyday of how much they miss their home countries. They always talk about hopefully one day being able to go back, but then reality sets in. They know that due to the dangerous conditions this will never happen. I always knew that I wanted to change that for my parents and grandparents, which is the main reason why I became a human rights and public policy major. I always felt that this road of corruption, poverty and crime was what plagued all of Central America  – until the day I set foot in Costa Rica.

You see, when I stepped foot out of the airport in San Jose, I expected to see children and women running in the streets and selling small goodies for money, or beggars lining the streets. But I saw none of that. I saw what I would expect to see outside of DFW airport  – just families waiting for their loved ones, and lines of taxis and buses waiting to pick up passengers. This was just a small glimpse of what Costa Rica had to offer.

Costa Rica is a country that has built itself up higher than any other Central American country, and has done so by abolishing its military. During our trip to various organizations, many of them made sure to mention this fact. This may seem like a shock for security reasons, but to Costa Rica it has been a blessing. The elimination of the military has allowed the country to be able to channel those funds to education, healthcare and environmental preservation. I couldn’t understand how much this decision affected Costa Rica until I saw it myself.

When Costa Rica abolished its military, it donated all the bases to the ministry of education so they could be used to enhance the Costa Rican education system. El Museo Nacional de Costa Rica is a prime example of this endeavor. This anthropological museum once filled with weapons and soldiers is now full of vibrant displays and immense amounts of knowledge. It was a sight to see. After seeing how badly military regimes have destroyed other Central American countries with civil war and coups, it was a breath of fresh air to see something beautiful come out of something once so destructive.

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica - Army base turned Museum

Museo Nacional de Costa Rica – Army base turned Museum

Abolishing the military has also allowed the Costa Rican government to provide mandatory free education for all, something which is rare to see in Central America. Our trip to DNI, a human rights organization in Costa Rica that seeks to recognize, respect and protect the rights of children and adolescents, also spoke of the prominent importance of primary education. However the DNI representative also told us that Costa Rica still suffers from a high drop out rate, with only 30 percent of teens finishing high school. As unfortunate as that is, Costa Rica still maintains a 96 percent literacy rate while the rest of Central America trails behind. To me this seemed like progress I hadn’t seen anywhere else.

This progress has renewed in me the belief that Central America still has a chance to become the beautiful region it is meant to be. Costa Rica has truly become a beacon of hope to my family and I. When I told my family all the stories of my experiences and showed them all my pictures, they couldn’t believe it. This trip has solidified my passion for public policy and human rights, and has fueled my determination to seek change in Central America, and it is all thanks to Student Leadership Initiative.

DNI – with the Student Leadership Initiative family

DNI – with the Student Leadership Initiative family

“We have always held to the hope, the belief, the conviction that there is a better life, a better world, beyond the horizon.” – Franklin D. Roosevelt

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