An update from Hope, a sophomore majoring in human rights and history, on the Student Leadership Initiative’s last day in Costa Rica, January 11:

What next? The end of any worthwhile journey always seems to beg this simple question. After spending a week and a half exploring the human rights context of Costa Rica, I and the other SMU students felt a mixed array of emotions as we eyed our passports and neatly packed suitcases ready for tomorrow’s airport departure. But our memories and emotions from the ten-day trip were not so easily packaged. Rather than immediately answering the inevitable “what next” question, we gained insight by first looking back on our remarkable experience and sharing the reflections that had shaped our journey.

Gathered around the spacious dining room table for a final dinner together, each student and faculty member found a few moments to voice their impressions from the research trip. With topics ranging from land rights to ecotourism, our conversation spanned the breadth of our travels, yet offered room for personal insight and evocative reflections. Personally, I shared my sense of humbled surprise at Costa Rica’s many nonprofits and social programs helping marginalized communities. While the government’s human rights legislation still lacks oversight and implementation in several key areas, I still felt impressed by Costa Rica’s many NGO workers and social advocates who improve the quality of life for countless Costa Ricans.

Rather than viewing ourselves as a group of judgmental ‘Western saviors,’ I and my classmates developed a desire to support and learn from these remarkable nonprofits and advocacy organizations which utilize limited funds to create widespread impact. If anything, our ten days of research reminded me of my ongoing need to learn from the struggles and successes of international human rights defenders who now serve as my newest ‘role models.’

In addition, another common theme shared during our reflection was the humanizing effect of our research meetings. To many of us, global topics like judicial inequality, prostitution, or indigenous land rights are important, but abstract concepts. While we might read about such phenomena in our textbooks, the human impact of these real-world issues often seems vague and distant. However, our various meetings soon demolished this perceived abstraction. Whether dialoguing with a former UN diplomat, urban sex workers, or indigenous tribal elders, we witnessed the same power of human dignity as stereotypes collapsed into names and faces. These Costa Rican advocates and nonprofit leaders represented far more than abstract social issues. Rather, the men and women who welcomed us into their homes and workplaces are sentient individuals, each with a story to tell and each with a passion to defend the dignity of themselves and others.

By evening’s end, each of us carried a unique assortment of emotions and impressions as we concluded our final dinner and last thoughtful reflections. Yet perhaps our ultimate conclusion from this powerful dialogue was the ongoing nature of the discussion. While we had begun to glimpse Costa Rica’s human rights culture during our travels, we knew we had only scratched the surface of Central America’s larger, continued story of human rights struggles. In addition, our discussions from the Costa Rica research trip had often led us to analyze our own country, as we compared the United States’ human rights violations with that of its international neighbors.

Regardless of each nation’s past mistakes or failures, the social conditions of both the United States and Costa Rica urged us to consider the underlying “what next” question. If the struggle for human rights truly does span nationalities and borders, then our role as researchers and advocates never really ends. True, our international adventure in Costa Rica had come to a close, but for many of us, the larger conversation was just beginning. The dialogue about human dignity bridges all languages, ethnicities, and cultures … a dialogue that each of us will continue at SMU and beyond.

Our group at our final dinner discussion. Photo by Hope/SMU Adventures

Our group at our final dinner discussion. Photo by Hope/SMU Adventures