Studying abroad shouldn’t have to be a luxury — here at SPI, we believe that travel and study abroad should be made affordable for everyone. This is why we provide one deserving student each year with the La Esperanza Scholarship, which covers all costs of our Costa Rica program, plus airfare. This year, our recipient was Juliana Pena, from Oakmont Regional High School in Ashburnham, Massachusetts. We’ve included segments below from our interview with Juliana, in which we got to hear her thoughts on Costa Rica, her favorite parts of the program, and the importance of study abroad for students everywhere. Check it out:

Why did you choose SPI? 

I was looking for short-term study abroad programs in Spanish-speaking countries that included cultural, volunteer, and language components, and SPI fit the bill! SPI was also the only high school program that I found that offered college credit for the Spanish classes taken. I read many reviews from past students, and also saw pictures and blogs from previous trips, and I knew that this program was for me!

What did it mean to you to be the recipient of SPI’s La Esperanza scholarship?

I applied for the scholarship unsure of whether I’d get it, because it was the first of its kind of scholarship (at least that I’d heard of). All I knew was that I really wanted to study Spanish and travel abroad, and when I received the notification call, I was so overwhelmed with emotion! I was so grateful to SPI for giving me the chance to study in Costa Rica, and I was so excited to practice the Spanish language in a foreign country. I knew that I had to make the most of this opportunity and totally immerse myself in Costa Rican culture. I also knew that I had to spread the word about these study abroad opportunities. Studying abroad means sharing what you’ve experienced when you come back, and I plan to do just this!

How has this experience impacted you?

Before, I was a girl who had never really left Massachusetts. I go to a school with very little diversity, so I haven’t gotten to communicate with many Spanish-speaking students. Even though I’m Puerto Rican, I couldn’t speak like a native, either. The first day in Costa Rica, I was so amazed. I knew more Spanish than I thought I did, and I grew so much as a person during those two weeks. I got to experience the feeling of volunteering with fellow students for a great cause [at a government daycare]. I also became more globally aware. It was my first time out of the country, so I didn’t know what to expect, but the experience helped me understand the Costa Rican way of living versus the U.S way of living. For the most part, Costa Ricans are focused on family and helping each other, which makes the country one of the richest in the world, in my opinion. I’ll take this experience back with me and use it to better myself and my community.

What made your SPI experience unique or special?

This was the best part of the trip, because I formed such close bonds with my host mom and sister. I got to experience the Costa Rican way of life and just feel like a Costa Rican teen for two weeks, which was an interesting experience! Also, my host family didn’t speak English, so I had to use my Spanish skills to communicate — this helped my language level improve greatly.

Do you think it is important for students your age to study abroad?

I think it’s important for all students to study abroad, especially those students from the U.S. The U.S is a nation of immigrants and is made up of so many different cultures, but students rarely are exposed to them. Studying abroad allows students to study different cultures and immerse themselves in foreign languages. You can read about Costa Rica in a history book, but you have to go to the country to really experience what it’s all about. In the globalized society that we live in today, it’s important to have an open mind — and studying abroad broadens your way of thinking. It is an invaluable experience to broaden and develop your global mindset, while having fun at the same time!

Would you suggest SPI Costa Rica to other students?

I would suggest this program to any student! It was such a rewarding experience that encompassed everything a person could ever want out of a study abroad program. With SPI, you’re able to gain in-depth knowledge of  the history, culture, and language of Costa Rica. The activities are great — you can horseback ride through forests, zip line through the trees, go shopping in the city, eat food at cozy restaurants, and even go out for a nightly scoop of gelato! All of this is combined with the opportunity to make a difference in the community.