French and Spanish Major
Raluca Oprinca knows quite a bit about international travel
And when she participated in the Associated Colleges of the Midwest Study Abroad Research Program in Costa Rica, she was presented with all kinds of new opportunities.
"I was in a village with less than 1,000 inhabitants near the Caribbean Sea and studied the levels of the empowerment in three groups of local women," Oprinca said. "Everyone was absolutely amazing."
The ACM Costa Rica spring program is designed for students to not only experience total immersion in another culture, but also to design and carry out research projects.
Students begin the program in San Jose, polishing their language skills and considering potential research projects. Later, students are placed with a host family in a rural village, and their research gets under way.
Oprinca studied empowerment among three groups of women: employees at a chocolate factory, women with other jobs, and homemakers. She later was invited to present her research findings at an international conference in Germany.
She has especially fond memories of her host mother, Doña Lucía, a local factory owner. Well-aware of her host daughter's fondness for fresh fruit, Lucía served watermelon, mango, and papaya at nearly every meal. Oprinca was even more impressed with Lucía's enlightened views on the world.
"Even though Doña Lucía never attended school, she understands that people are people -- no matter their differences -- and (she) treats foreign tourists, Ph.D.s or her fellow workers all the same way."
Oprinca grew to know many other women in the village as well, by conducting frequent surveys and interviews and even occasionally helping out in the chocolate factory.
"Although I spent a huge amount of time working, I didn't feel stressed there at all," Oprinca said. "Everybody was welcoming me in their houses for interviews, offering me treats, and asking me about my background."
After collecting data and gaining a rich understanding of life on the Costa Rican countryside, Oprinca returned to San Jose to organize her research.
At first, her findings seemed surprising. Most of the reports she encountered while preparing for the study had suggested that, in general, homemakers feel less empowered than women with jobs that take them out of the house.
Oprinca's research, however, revealed a more complex situation. She found that homemakers and employees working 12-hour shifts on plantations and in other factories reported far lower levels of self-esteem than the women in the chocolate factory, who worked only two or three days a week in four-hour to eight-hour shifts.
"In this case, it made perfect sense -- the employees I studied worked 12-hour days for really low wages, which caused low self-esteem, a lower degree of involvement in the community, and lack of desire to continue their education," she explained.
In December 2010, with support from a Richter Memorial Scholarship from Knox, Oprinca presented her findings before fellow researchers at the International Journal of Arts and Sciences Conference in Gottenheim, Germany.
"It's so uncommon for college students to actually do the research on their own. The skills I gained while studying abroad will undoubtedly help me in the future," Oprinca said.
She largely attributes her readiness for the ACM program to the education she's received at Knox.
In terms of career planning, Oprinca can't yet say what the future will bring. The possibilities include pursuing a career as a college professor or continuing research in some other academic field. But one thing is certain -- Costa Rica has made a lasting impact on her life.
"It truly is a fantastic country. I feel like I improved my Spanish skills tremendously and got to spend three months in a country with the happiest people on Earth," Oprinca said. "Without a doubt, Costa Rica is the place to be."