Basil Mathews: Heredia – Costa Rica
What were the primary factors that influenced your decision to study abroad?
I was always open to trying new things since childhood and was never too shy to explore unique experiences; this is why study abroad was an amazing opportunity for me. As a student who graduated from VCU with a B.S. in Biology and B.A. in Foreign Language: Spanish, I knew how critical my learning of Spanish in a foreign country would be toward my future endeavor of becoming a medical doctor.
What made you choose your destination?
Choosing Costa Rica was easy for me – it’s known for having great tourist attractions, friendly people, and a Spanish dialect that is relatively easy to speak and understand in comparison to that of other countries. More so, it was great because most Spanish speaking immigrants that migrate to the United States come from Mexico and Central America. Studying abroad in Costa Rica is another reason why this sort of cultural awareness that I have gained will help me better connect with my patients on a more personal level in the future.
What classes did you take while abroad and how would you compare them to taking courses on campus at VCU?
During my 4-month stay in Costa Rica, I was able to take 15 credits of Spanish, which was truly an amazing experience. At VCU, students are usually limited to 2-3 language classes per semester. Taking five classes with non-native English speakers definitely changes the game in comparison. Instructors had higher expectations of us, and we truly had to force ourselves to learn the language and speak it. Towards the end of my trip, I felt comfortable traveling alone from city to city, being able to confidently navigate my way around and ask the local people for help if necessary. During my time in Costa Rica, I was able to take a Spanish Composition course, Hispanic Texts, Latin American Cinema, Analysis of Literature, and an Analysis of Culture course. The professors truly went out of their way to ensure we learned and were fully immersed in the language and culture. Another benefit was when I returned to VCU to take three more 400 level courses, it felt like a breeze! After speaking the language continuously for four months, it seemed as if I were forgetting my English as Spanish grew on me daily.
What were some of the challenges you faced while adjusting to your host country? How might these challenges help you in the future?
For the first two months I was there, I took a 40-minute bus ride every Friday to a local pool in order to overcome my fear of opens waters and learn how to swim. By mid-March, I had finally conquered my fear and was able to scuba dive for two days up to a depth of 60 feet, viewing the marvelous life that laid beneath. Surprisingly enough, some of the physics I learned at VCU came in handy for this experience. Aside from all the fun and games, I was able to help several kids at Llorente Elementary School learn English. Working with these children and tutoring my host brothers in mathematics and science truly instilled in me the passion and desire to learn more so that I may help others one day as a physician.
How has your experience changed your future academic and career goals?
Through this experience, I have better diversified myself so that I can more easily relate with future patients. The doctor-patient relationship is truly something dynamic. Having complete trust in a physician is absolutely essential if the physician wants to properly and extensively diagnose you; I personally feel as though living in another country and speaking a different language will open up new possibilities for my future. Seeing how a population interacts in a third world country changes your vision on how people relate to one another. By gathering and learning new culturally pertinent information, I believe I can relay this valuable information to migrant patients so that they feel a sense of hominess. This experience could help all doctors out there; studying abroad is a great start to exploring unique cultures.
What were your most memorable experiences?
While abroad, I wasn’t able to participate in any medically related experiences such as conducting research or shadowing physicians due to Costa Rica’s strict limitations. However, I was able to step outside my comfort zone and boundaries in order to make myself a more competent, passionate person. I took extremes when it came to travel, especially with respect to the outdoor world. I went camping for the first time in my life, not just once but many times. I learned how to survive in the woods for several days at a time; in fact, there was one day we walked non-stop for nearly 25 miles! I learned how to rappel down a waterfall, bungee jump, and zip-line as well.
How has your study abroad experience changed your worldview?
Late night discussions with my host family each evening during dinner truly sparked my respect for different people. I realized that not everyone has it as easy as we do in the United States. Hearing the struggles that my family went through in order to come to where they are now truly made me appreciate life once again and not take it for granted. They taught me invaluable lessons – lessons that I will always remember for the rest of my life, and lessons that will be useful while I treat patients of Hispanic descent. As far as ethnicities are concerned, most patients feel more comfortable and open toward those of their own ethnicity; by diversifying myself in 3 cultures: North American, Indian, and Hispanic, I believe I can better handle social discussions with future patients. This will ultimately lead to me being a better doctor that is able to more critically evaluate a patient’s condition.
How has your study abroad experience changed you as a person?
Studying abroad in Costa Rica was something I’d always dreamed about, but I never thought it would come true. Living for four months in the small district of Heredia (known as San Joaquin de Flores) was truly life changing in many ways. Overcoming a language barrier by learning how to fluently speak Spanish as well as experiencing the world in a more physical manner greatly influenced the person I am today.
What would you say to a student who is considering studying abroad?
Definitely meet with the GEO office early. Start planning your trip and make sure you apply for scholarships. If you’re a premedical student, work with your advisors. Chances are if you’re a junior and you’re studying abroad, you’re going to miss several updates regarding the pre-health committee so make sure you complete the application and submit an online Skype interview request. Don’t be scared- be open to trying out new things. You only get one shot at life- experience and learn by moving about and broadening your comfort zone.