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Student Polishes Spanish Skills

Matt McKinney '13 now has 'second home' in Costa Rica


Matt McKinney on Mount Chirripo

Matt McKinney, a Knox College junior from Springfield, Illinois, is spending his fall term away from the Knox campus -- more than 3,000 miles away. A creative writing major, McKinney is developing his Spanish-language skills and becoming immersed in the culture of Central America through the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) Costa Rica program. Two versions of the ACM Costa Rica program are offered: "Language, Society, & the Environment" in the fall and a field research option in the spring.

McKinney (at far left in the photo above) is among 14 students currently participating in the fall program, and he is the only one from Knox. Since the 2000-2001 academic year, a total of 18 Knox students have participated in ACM Costa Rica. A few days after writing this first-person account of his experiences so far, McKinney hiked with others in Chirripo National Park in Costa Rica and climbed to the top of Cerro Chirripo, at 12,500 feet the country's highest mountain.


by Matt McKinney '13

Less than a year ago, I thought studying abroad was out of the question.

Even after three terms of Spanish, I struggled with grammar and vocabulary. Foreign languages just did not stick with me. The 200-level Spanish course I was taking at the time was overwhelming. Most of my classmates were either native speakers or had already spent a term abroad in a Spanish-speaking country.

This made keeping up with classroom conversation almost impossible. Even the simplest reading assignments, some as short as four or five pages, often took three or four hours for me to complete.

I was in over my head. About six weeks into the term, I met with my professor, Claudia Fernandez, to inform her I was going to have to withdraw from her course.

But she told me not to give up. She said that a term abroad might be just what I needed. I applied for the Associated Colleges of the Midwest (ACM) Costa Rica: Language, Society & Environment program. Even though it recommends at least two years of Spanish, the program accepts students of all levels.

It sounded perfect.

Si, yo puedo (Yes, I can)

My first weeks in Costa Rica seemed like a blur. I struggled even with basic introductions when my host-family picked me up at the airport in late August. I told myself it was nervousness more than anything.Matt McKinney holds a sloth

My host-mom said that of the nearly two dozen students they had shared their home with since 1997, each had greatly improved his or her Spanish by the end of the program. I feared I might be the exception.

My host-family has been gracious, accommodating, and incredibly patient with me. For that, I cannot thank them enough.

Every morning before I head off to school, my host-grandmother makes me repeat the phrase, "Si, yo puedo." ("Yes, I can.")

My host-sister's husband, Nick, who lived in the United States for almost 30 years, speaks fluent English. He played college football at Notre Dame and the University of Pittsburgh, where he won a national championship in the late 1970s. Nick was great help in easing my transition into Costa Rica and still helps bridge communication gaps when they occur.

The whole family shares coffee each afternoon, exchanging stories and discussing Costa Rican current events. (The most debated topic at the moment is a nationwide hike in speeding ticket fines to more than $600.) Family is everything in the Costa Rican household.

In just the first month, my classmates and I held baby sloths (photo above right), went jogging at daybreak in the Sarapiqui Rainforest with program director Chris Vaughan, and met 94-year-old Walter Ferguson (photo below left), perhaps the most important calypso musician in the world.

I have experienced things in Costa Rica I could not have possibly imagined before arriving. Costa Rica has become a second home.

Matt McKinney and Walter FergusonLiving on an organic farm

One part of our program consists of a three-week rural stay, where students are assigned a volunteer project and live with a second host-family. I was on an organic farm, free of warm water, the Internet, and English, several hours from San Jose.

I knew from the beginning that this might be the only time in my life without those things. Although I grew up in Springfield, Illinois, a town surrounded by hundreds of miles of corn and soybean fields, rural life provided a pretty powerful a culture shock at first.

The farm's 40 cows were milked each morning. Then eggs from the several hundred hens were collected. The farm had everything from yucca to plantains to oranges. The food was some of the freshest I have ever eaten.

Organic farming has only recently become popular in Costa Rica, one of the most environmentally friendly countries in the world. The farm was partially subsidized by the European Union, the Bolivian Consultant for Sustainable Development, and Costa Rica's Ministry of Environment and Energy, which meant there were frequent visitors.

Matt McKinney on farmin Costa RicaTwo independent researchers, both in their mid-20s, visited the farm on behalf of a Canadian pharmaceutical company for a few days during my stay. They were looking for a plant to be used in an anti-anxiety medication for dogs.

We spent hours talking about music and politics -- in Spanish.

Something had clicked. After weeks away from other ACM students, the Internet, and exposure to English, Spanish suddenly made sense to me.

Life on the farm had given me a voice. My host-family challenged me to speak. And finally, I could.

Fortunately, it will not be my last time there. They invited me to stay a few days in December after the end of my program.

A newfound self-assuredness

Returning from my rural stay was exhilarating. For the first time abroad, I felt completely self-assured.

I have had moments, while talking with friends and family from back home, where I have forgotten English words that I know in Spanish. Other times, while speaking with my host-family in San Jose, I have forgotten that I was speaking Spanish and blurted out phrases in English mid-sentence.

But most importantly, I have forgotten why I was ever reluctant to study abroad.

Many students have the tendency while studying abroad to focus on differences: different customs, different food-oftentimes, even a different language. That holds especially true when you are coming from a sleepy railroad town in western Illinois.

But what Costa Rica has ultimately taught me is that similarities are everywhere you look. Just don't be afraid to go find them.

Matt McKinney with ACM Costa Rica students