An Interview with Juliana Pena, Our 2013 Winner of the La Esperanza Scholarship

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.

A Life-changing Experience!

Get ready to experience and SPI Abroad program yourself. Learn more about our programs or request more information today.

Request Your Catalog Today.

Fill out the form below and we will send you a catalog and get in touch. Please note all fields are required.

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Request Your Catalog Today.

Fill out the form below and we will send you a catalog and get in touch. Please note all fields are required.

A Life-changing Experience!

Get ready to experience and SPI Abroad program yourself. Learn more about our programs or request more information today.

Request Your Catalog Today.

Fill out the form below and we will send you a catalog and get in touch. Please note all fields are required.

On-Site Supervision Team Abroad

We hire bilingual high school teachers, university professors, and caring local staff who, as a team, serve as international “moms and dads” throughout the program. Directors actively participate in all aspects of the immersion experience: helping with housing adjustments, checking in on classes, and making sure students are taking advantage of the wonderful excursion and activity opportunities. All SPI staff go through extensive reference checks.

Training & Experience

Directors are selected based on their experience working with teenagers in an international setting, their ability to communicate fluently in the language of study, and their academic & professional background. All on-site staff go through an intensive training process.

Daily Supervision

Students are expected to be respectful of their directors’ guidelines and abide by the SPI standards of conduct at all times. SPI directors and program staff are available 24 hours a day. Directors check in with students on a daily basis in the mornings, afternoons, and evenings; they also frequently monitor all aspects of each student’s progress. Homestays and residence directors are contacted to learn how students are adjusting, and to handle any concerns. Daily curfews are enforced.

Student Behavior Expectations

Since 1996, we have proudly attracted an academically-minded student body focused on improving their language skills and growing from cultural experiences. At SPI, we take our role as teachers seriously — we recognize that we are responsible for guiding students through one of their most life-changing experiences. We expect students not only to abide by our standards of conduct at all times, but also to serve as ambassadors of their local communities, schools, and cities.

No Alcohol Policy

SPI maintains a strict policy against the use of alcohol. Directors check in with students in the evenings; however, parents are expected to review our standards of conduct with their children and set clear family expectations prior to the start of the program with regards to their behavior abroad.

Afternoon Elective Activities

Our meaningful afternoon elective activities make local culture, art, architecture, museums, sports, and attractions come to life! Each program offers a variety of engaging activities designed to combine serious fun with truly inspiring “once in a lifetime” experiences. Electives are not included in the program price, and we suggest students budget $100 per week for participation in these incredible learning experiences.

Common Afternoon Electives

CULTURAL: Cooking, Dance, Art & Architecture, Museum & Theater Visits, Local Sporting & Cultural Events

SPORTS: Surfing, Volleyball, Soccer, Kayaking, Snorkeling, Hikes & Walks

ENRICHMENT: Photography, College Prep (Essay Writing, Admissions Prep), Photography, Guest Speakers

Sample Travel Excursions

SPAIN: Bilbao, Pamplona, Santander, San Sebastian, Guernika, Biarritz (France), Comillas, Picos de Europa

FRANCE: Bordeaux, Bayonne, Anglet, San Sebastian (Spain), St. Jean de Luz, Pyrenees Mountains

COSTA RICA: Liberia, Cloud Forest, Puntarenas, Rincon de la Vieja, Tamarindo Beach

ITALY: Florence, Orvieto, San Gimignano, San Vincezo, Castiglione della Pescaia

Our Screening & Selection Process

Students live with roommates in a local homestay or student residence that is experienced in hosting foreign students. SPI has worked with most participating homestays and student residences for a number of years, and they understand students are there to learn the language and experience the culture. SPI diligently screens each homestay and student residence facility with the following in mind: safety, location, cleanliness, and previous experience hosting students.


Most homestays have hosted students for many years and take their jobs and duties as cultural ambassadors very seriously. Our foreign schools also work with each family on a year-round basis to ensure a positive experience is had by each student. It is critical to understand that most homestays come from humble means and different dynamics.

Location of Housing

All housing options are located within a 10-30 minute commute from the school. Students will walk or take the local bus, which is a safe and normal way for students their age to get around in our host cities. The majority of our housing options are located in the same areas where students will be close to each other.

Evening Curfews

Student curfews are set based on what a culturally appropriate weekday and weekend curfew would be for teenagers in the country of study. This is normally between 10 PM – 11 PM on weekdays and a little later on the weekends depending on location and group dynamic. As an important safety measure, program staff diligently monitor student curfews. Specific curfews are listed on each program page for your reference. 

Typical Housing Dynamics

Students are well supported in all housing options and are provided with: meals, a living and study space, laundry service or facilities, linens and towels. It is fundamental that students have an open mind to trying new foods and living in an environment different than “home” to benefit from this transformative experience!

Although SPI homestays come in all shapes and sizes, the majority are older couples or single/widowed women in their 50s – 60s who have extra room in their home and are eager to host students. We have found this dynamic provides the best support, the most interaction, and the most culturally rich experience. Some homestays do have children, but students should keep in mind that homestays with children are busier and often offer less interaction — much like a busy American family.

Language Course Overview

The language courses focus on developing communication skills by simulating real-life situations through interactive class activities that include writing, oral expression, film, music, food, and literature.

> 2 Hours – Grammatical Concepts

> 1-2 Hours – Conversation, Culture, Literature, Film, etc.

> Small class sizes with levels 1 through AP/IB

College Credit Opportunity

SPI uses foreign universities and accredited language institutes for coursework abroad. These institutions provide high school students, upon successful completion of their courses, with an official transcript that they may use to petition college credit from their future university or college. Official transcripts are first sent to SPI in September, and then we will mail an official copy of the transcript in a sealed envelope to each participant. You will mail the official transcript packet directly to your U.S. university once you are enrolled.

Credit Hours vs. Credit Granted

Most SPI language immersion programs give 30-80 contact hours, or classroom hours, enabling for a potential of up to 1-6 semester college credit hours by your university. Contact hours are treated differently at every school. Some schools will grant specific class credit for the hours (e.g., Spanish), although most give a general foreign language or elective credit. Normally, 15 Contact/Class Hours = 1 College Credit Hour.

IMPORTANT:  Due to the nature of college credit granting by each individual U.S. university, it is impossible for SPI to guarantee credit for any student.