Mixing Cultures

Author: Zoe Henkes

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

You’ll probably hear this from anyone who has spent a semester abroad, but it’s so true—the time goes by so quickly.  One day you’re arriving, overwhelmed by so many new people and customs, and the next, you’re leaving the new family and friends that you’ve grown to know and love.  However, that is one of the beautiful things about study abroad as well.  You get to share the culture of your host country with that of your native country.

One of the first things you should know about Costa Rican culture is what is known as “tico time.”  This phrase refers to Costa Ricans’ (ticos) tendency to lose track of time.  A few phrases you might hear include “tranquilo” and “suave,” which are synonyms meaning something along the lines of “chill” and “easy.” In the same sense, Costa Ricans spend a lot of time on greetings and goodbyes.  For example, if you are having coffee with a friend, even if you are getting up to say goodbye, you could be there for another 30 minutes chatting.  Since being back in the United States, I feel that I am more calm and relaxed about my schedule.  This could be just the fact that it’s winter break and I don’t have schoolwork to worry about anymore, but I also definitely cannot discount the tico lifestyle that I lived for the past few months.

Next, one of my favorite customs from Costa Rica was afternoon coffee time.  Around 3 or 4 o’clock on most afternoons, Costa Ricans gather in the kitchen for afternoon coffee.  The coffee was always excellent—it was made with a traditional Costa Rican coffee maker known as a Chorreador.  The coffee was always so smooth, and my host mom always added the perfect amount of cream and sugar.  In addition, there were always rich breads, pastries, or cakes to go along with the coffee.  Then, we’d all enjoy our coffee together with family and friends alike.  Overall, it was such an amazing time of fellowship and tradition which I’d like to incorporate more in my time with my family in the United States.  

Lastly, I can’t tell you enough how much I enjoyed the food in Costa Rica.  A few new vegetables that I tried were “chayote,” which can be described as a cross between a celery and a potato, and “yuca,” which is like a very dense, starchy potato.  An interesting fruit that I tried is called “granadilla,” which is sort of like a pomegranate, as the seeds are coated with a jelly-like sac, but it has a tarter taste.  Furthermore, there were plenty of meals containing beans and rice, but there were also different varieties of soups, pastas, fried chicken, and more.  However, one of my favorite meals is called “gallo pinto,” translated to spotted rooster.  This is a very simple, yet traditional dish eaten in both Costa Rica and Nicaragua that is made of beans and rice.  In Costa Rica, it is usually eaten for breakfast, alongside with a scrambled or fried egg.  Another dish I really enjoyed was a dessert called “arroz con leche,” the same thing as rice pudding, and is best-served warm.  My host mom graciously shared with me the recipes of both gallo pinto and arroz con leche, so I will attempt to make them both for my U.S. family over the break!

In the end, while it is so great to finally be home in the U.S., I realize more and more the things that I miss from my time abroad.  My host family was so kind and welcoming to me and really did an amazing job of engaging me in Costa Rican culture.  Now, I have the privilege of sharing that culture with my family and friends at home.  


Pro Tip While Travelling: Find Familiarity

Author: Zoe Henkes

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

When you’re traveling abroad, you may instantly feel overwhelmed by the many changes and new experiences.  Things may even seem a little out of control at times.  The daily routine that you’re so used to may not even exist anymore.  

One thing that I would suggest when studying abroad is, even when everything around you seems so foreign and out-of-the-ordinary, is to try to have some sort of familiarity.  Whether that includes pictures of your family or friends, or your colored pencils because you like to draw, that familiarity will help a lot when everything else seems so different.


For me, that familiarity is regular exercise through running.  Even if I weren’t studying abroad, exercise is a good way to release endorphins and lower my stress levels.  But this is especially relevant now.  Ironically, I have not run one step since coming to Costa Rica.  The neighborhood is pretty safe to run in, but for whatever reason, it just didn’t feel right.  

At first this was fine because I was constantly tired and didn’t even have time for exercise because classes went form 8 am until 5:30 pm.  However, after those classes ended in October, this lack of exercise actually caused me a lot of discomfort.  There was a voice in my head that told me I should be getting exercise, but I still felt too tired or scared to run outside.  Eventually, there was a time when I got a pretty bad case of the flu, and I spent three days inside, not seeing the sun once.  This was a real wake up call for me, as I realized how sedentary I had really ben this entire trip.  Even though I am in a totally different country, exercise isn’t something I should have to forfeit (This goes for any sort of hobby or interest—if it’s something that you enjoy, please don’t give up on it just because you are studying abroad.).

So maybe running isn’t really your thing.   No worries, there’s Zumba!  I was honestly a little nervous the first time I went Zumba here.  I had done Zumba a couple times in the US, but since Zumba originated in Latin America, I felt very out of place.  However, it was honestly so much fun!  No one judged me for my poor dance moves.  In fact, I’m sure the instructor (who is crazy good) saw me struggling, but he made an effort to encourage and even compliment me on the things that I could do.  

Next, if neither running nor Zumba are up your alley, there are these public exercise machines in the parks of most neighborhoods.  To give you a better idea of how they work, none of them are motorized, they instead focus on lifting one’s own body weight.  Other machines use resistance or work the cardiovascular system.  When I first saw these, I actually laughed a little bit, thinking to myself do people actually use these silly machines out in the open?  The answer is yes!  Even though it’s not what we are used to, they are free to use and will give you a basic workout.  

If none of this appeals to you, there is a gym that you can get a membership in.  I considered this, but it did seem a little expensive for my taste.  But hey, if that’s something that is important to your everyday schedule, don’t shy away from that!

Overall, what I am trying to say is that even if you are spending a semester abroad, which is supposed to be filled with all new experiences and adventures, if something is important to you or your mental sanity, don’t give that up.  In the long run (no pun intended), when everything else is so different from the norm, that one familiar thing could help tremendously.  


Reflecting on the Netherlands

Author:  Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

While abroad, one university professor told me that while I may come to this place as 100% American, I would leave only 95% American. Over those months spent in another country, we start to act, think, and feel at home there, even if just a little bit. This has certainly been my experience in the Netherlands. A once far off dreamy, tulip and bike clad land, Nederland has in a way, become a second home. While I may not speak the language, or look Dutch at all, the sounds and sights of the country do not seem strange or foreign anymore, in fact they feel quite comforting.

When I came back from my fall break trip to Italy, as soon as I got on the plane back to Amsterdam, I started to hear Dutch. Italian was foreign to me and having spent a week in that environment, I was excited to get back to what I knew! When I heard the throaty g’s and unique accent of the Dutch language, I immediately felt at home. This was the strangest feeling though, because I did not even recognize what these people were saying, yet somehow it still felt like home to me.

I wanted to come to Utrecht to become a global citizen and I have grown in that venture. I love how I was able to adapt to another culture and start to feel a part of it. It was a challenge in learning to be frustrated, confused, and hopelessly lost, and being able to conquer those feelings. At some moments, I felt like a complete outsider, unable to communicate or effectively function in this system. Other times I felt like I completely fit in. When I had to tell the cashier or store clerk, “sorry, I just speak English,” I felt like I was an intruder. But on the other hand, when I had a “conversation” with an old lady speaking Dutch by smiling, nodding, and laughing at the right moments, I felt completely Dutch. I felt like this sweet old woman could have even been my grandmother. There were hundreds of other moments on both sides of the spectrum, but through these moments I grew the most. I learned to try my best to adapt to a different way of living, to not feel defeated if I couldn’t the first time, and to realize I could try again.


I think this best summarizes my stay abroad: feeling like an outsider, but growing in my understanding and action to start to feel like I belonged. While my experience at University College Utrecht was heavily shaped by my transition to Dutch culture, it has broader implications. At first, I struggled to adapt to a new lifestyle, but eventually I was able, and it even started to become like home. Regardless of the specific culture I adapted to, I now know I can adapt, fit in, and be at home in another place. Through study abroad, I have not only learned that I can adapt to new environments, but I have also learned how. I think this is the most important lesson I have taken away from this experience, learning how to be, not just an American, but a global citizen.

The Long Road Home

Author: Keith Nagel
Location: Windhoek, Namibia

As I close out this semester with one final blog, I thought it would be an opportune time to talk about my long journey home. Today I will travel to three different continents, pass over great deserts and wide open oceans, and end up in my back yard playing fetch with my dog. From Windhoek Namibia, to Amsterdam, and finally across the United States to my home will take a full day of travel. Even though the travel seems rigorous, it was certainly not the hardest part about my trip home. For me, and many other people that study abroad, the hardest thing about leaving is saying goodbye to new friends and your home away from home. The final week is most likely going to be stressful with final projects and last minute souvenir shopping, so my advice is to try and get as much done in advance as you can.


Another thing that that is not often thought about is the need for re-integration into your own home culture. It seems odd to think that you need to be reminded about life back home, but it is important so you don’t end up having a culture shock in your own country. Coming from Namibia I anticipate having a bit of a culture shock with the amount of people in the United States, the relative wealth of America, and even driving on the right side of the road again. These societal differences will be different for each study abroad experience but one can expect that it might be hard at first to get back in the swing of things. This includes reconnecting with old friends after spending so much time with new ones you made while away. In these final days it is important to spend time with the people and places you most connect with on your study abroad experience. One day I hope to think of the amazing people I met long ago, and wonder what they will go on to see in worlds that I shall never know. Be conscious of the fact that you experienced a world that many of your friends will never know, and be reassured in that your study abroad friends will continue to experience the world in new ways you never will as well. It is important to look back on the memories you shared with friends, I have included a few memories of my own favorite moments in the images in this blog. A few final remarks: pursue your dreams, take as many pictures as you can, never trade the thrills of living for the security of existence, immerse yourself into what your learning, and never take your experience for granted. Goodbye Namibia, see you soon.

Living Off the Grid

Author: Keith Nagel

Location: Windhoek, Namibia 


Living off the grid isn’t just for doomsday preppers and Bond villains. For roughly a quarter of the worlds population living without access to electricity, it is an every day struggle. Although it is usually a novelty or unfortunate economic reality for many, living off the grid can actually be a good thing. This is one of the many realization I had while staying at the NaDEET desert camp in the Namib desert of Namibia. The camp’s focus was to educate us students on sustainable practices in almost every aspects of their lives.

During our stay at the camp, our food was cooked by the sun in solar ovens, our electricity was provided by solar panels, and our water was strictly monitored. The unfortunate reality is that for dry countries like Namibia, these practices may not just be a option but a means of survival in the near future. Developing countries are disproportionately affected by climate change, and Namibia is already struggling to provide enough water to its growing population.

While traveling in new places,​​​​ I have always thought that it is important to learn about the physical land itself. Studying abroad is an amazing opportunity to do so because chances are you’ll be learning in a completely new environment that welcomes some exploring. Living sustainability and off the grid in the Western world should not just be a way of life reserved for people who drive Prius’ and organically source their kale chips. Tech leaders like Elon Musk of Tesla are already planning of a world where a home’s roof tiles will power the family car and the rest of the house fully off any grid. This trip was so influential to me because it motivated me to take an honest reflection on my practices and understanding of global impacts. If we are one day able to realize the dream of tech geniuses and conservationists, the results may be just as magical as the stars in the light free Namibian night sky.

Don’t Forget to Have a Little Fun

Author: Keith Nagel

Location: Windhoek, Namibia

It’s not every day that you get to see flamingos, eat amazing food, take atv’s into the desert with a bunch of your friends, or sand board the tallest dunes in to world all in the same day, so when you get the chance to…you better take it. After the honeymoon phase is over at about 3/4 of the way through your study abroad experience things may start to plateau as you concentrate on essays, tests, and the rest. A little fun is a great way to break the monotony. I know one of the best decisions I have made on my time in Namibia has been to take advantage of every adventurous opportunity I can get my hands on. Because the Namibian program is so structured around travel, it wasn’t hard to find new fun each weekend. If you get the chance, take the long road trip to the coast, climb the tallest thing you can find (unless your studying in Nepal, in which case you should probably train a little before doing so), book a flight to a new country, or just take a walk around your new home. I guarantee it will change your life. It has certainly changed mine.

One of the best places to pursue these carpe diem adventures in Southern Africa is in Swakopmund, Namibia. This historically significant town on the Western coast promises thrill seekers and scenic travelers alike an experience they wont forget. Actress Angelina Jolie loved the town so much that she chose to give birth to her daughter at the local Swakopmund hospital. We had learned about the town in class, but it turned out to be far more than just the small coastal town we read about in books. It’s pointless for a student to paint scenes of a place in their mind when they can go outside and stand in it. We studied the lasting German colonial influence, the first genocide of the 21st century, the rich fishing industry, and the effect that growth has had on the marine populations. This made the extracurricular activities we did even more enriching because we felt like we really knew the town and it’s history far more than any tourist off the street. And we certainly had a good time as well.

Swakopmund sits at the edge of the skeleton coast, where the tallest dunes in the world meet the Atlantic Ocean in splendid fashion. What is even better is we were able to rent ATV’s and explore the dunes in all their glory. I think this trip was the programs best mix of academic and fun activities that we had all semester. It is so important to not forget to have a little fun on your study abroad experience. In a place like Namibia it seems like fun and adventure is around every corner. So get out there and explore as many as you can.


Author: Keith Nagel
Location: Windhoek, Namibia

Mark Twain once wrote, “Mauritius was made first, and then heaven; and that heaven was copied after Mauritius”. The small island country of Mauritius is located in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Madagascar. Although it is technically located in Southern Africa, you would never know it. The country is a lush oasis of mountains, white beaches, and crystal blue water. The population was predominately of Indian decent from indentured labor under British rule, a realization that comes quickly as you drive past hindu temples in the hustle and bustle of the country’s roads. Mauritius is also the endemic home of the infamous Dodo bird, that would later be popularized by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It was such a departure from where I was studying in Namibia that I thought it would make the perfect place to spend my fall break.

I traveled with two of my study abroad friends to the island to find what I would argue is the closest thing to jurassic park in the world. The following week would prove to be one of the best weeks of my life, with plenty of adventures I will never forget. We took our incredibly slow tin can of a rental car all around the island. These little road trips were filled with amazing beaches, towering waterfalls, and bustling city centers. After a few difficult days laying on the beach and sipping on coconut water I thought I might have a go at some island fun. The next morning at dawn I embarked on a deep sea fishing expedition in rough seas. I came away with a couple small tuna but who knows, maybe next time I’ll catch the big one. My favorite memory of the whole trip was swimming among dolphins in the wild. To see these amazing creatures move, talk, and play was something that not even the Planet Earth series can fully capture. Although I may never make it back to this tiny volcanic island on the other side of the world, I will forever treasure the memories and place that is Mauritius.

Meet Juana!

Author: Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

Hello again and welcome back to University College Utrecht! Today I’ll be introducing you to one of the people I live with, Juana! Juana is the most generous person I have met in all of my time abroad! She is hilarious, kind and always accommodating. When my phone was stolen on one of my trips, Juana was the first person to help me out. She lent me her phone charger and her old phone and helped me out tremendously! I am so thankful to have met Juana and I want you to be able to meet her too, so today I am going to introduce her to you! Juana is from Madrid, Spain. Her favorite color is green and her favorite food is tortilla. Her major is something in the social sciences, perhaps anthropology, politics or psychology, but now I will let her tell you about herself!

Me: So why did you decide to come to UCU and study the liberal arts and sciences?

Juana: The first time I heard about the program I thought it was very cool! I don’t know what to do, because I am genuinely interested in a lot! I wanted freedom to try many different subjects, because I’m really interested in it all!

Me: What are you really excited to learn about?

Juana: I am super excited for Comparative Politics. I used to not think that was what I was into, but now I am really excited for it. I used to think it didn’t affect my life, but now I want to study it and combine it with anthropology, so I can go between people and their politicians.

Me: What changed that now you are excited to learn about politics?

Juana: As I grow up, I want to know more, like what is going on. This past year has been crazy in Spain and I want to know all that is going on and have an opinion. The events in Spain (Catalonian Referendum) have affected me a lot more than I expected. The situation was handled wrong in so many ways. The government sucks; they didn’t have any dialogue; they just did what they wanted. It would have been easy if they had talked and got on the same page. I want to be a person that can contribute to dialogue and work with people across differences.

Me: Have any experiences in your personal life contributed to this too?

Juana: Yes, people can be so closed minded sometimes. I’ve struggled all my life with that in Spain. I’m from Argentina originally. I say I’m Spanish, because that’s where I’ve lived almost all of my life, but in Spain, I don’t feel Spanish. When I have conversations with people, sometimes they will insult me just because I am an immigrant. There is a problem with that. Some Spanish people just repeat what they hear that immigrants take jobs from the real Spanish and stuff. The Spanish criticize South Americans, especially if their skin is dark. I try to discuss with these people, but sometimes I just don’t know what to say. I want to learn about politics and anthropology, so I can understand all perspectives to help open people’s minds to view each other and their viewpoints fairly. I want to work with people and engage with them through discussion, so maybe more people can learn to be open-minded!

Me: With that goal in mind, is there a certain type of job you would like?

Juana: I have no idea yet! I want to do something that can make a little bit of an impact in someone’s life. I want to work with people and enjoy what I do!

Me: Is there anything you would like to say to people in the U.S. or Valpo?

Juana: I want to tell people to try to have an open mind. It can be hard, but an easy way to do that is to travel and see different things! Then, you might be able to open yourself up to all possibilities!


Why Everyone Should Travel Solo

Author: Janelle Bouman

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

One of the main reasons why I chose to study abroad was because I love to travel and experience new places.  Some of my best adventures have come from traveling alone.  I never would have thought I’d be brave enough to take a trip by myself until I actually did just that for the first time.  I’ve been on a few solo trips by now: a year and a half ago, when I was 19, I traveled through France by myself for a week.  This semester abroad, I’ve added solo adventures to Copenhagen during my fall break, and a long weekend in Berlin.  I sometimes get moderately shocked reactions when people learn that I’ve traveled by myself, but I think everyone should do this!  The more experienced I get, the more comfortable and enjoyable it becomes. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough to my fellow travelers.  Here are a few of the reasons why:


You have to get out of your comfort zone

This is the obvious reason, but also probably the most important one.  Traveling by yourself is certainly intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before.  But I’m a strong advocate for going out there and trying the things that might scare you.  Before I left on my first solo trip, I was questioning why I had decided to do this and wondering if I would actually be up for it.  It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.  I guarantee that traveling by yourself will be a little scary, but also inevitably a rewarding challenge and learning experience.

Your itinerary (and your wallet) are completely under your own control

I love museums, castles, and cathedrals.  I enjoy simply wandering to take in the sights of a city, stopping to listen to street music, and taking way too many pictures of scenic views.  I don’t mind being out in the rain or walking long distances.  I also prefer spending as little money as I possibly can.  When I am by myself, I don’t have to worry about balancing any of these things against anyone else’s interests or wishes, because my day and my pace are entirely up to me.  And the best part is, I am completely free to change my plans on a whim, sometimes resulting in the very best of experiences.

You learn how to figure out things for yourself

Traveling plans never go perfectly, and figuring out how to handle these situations on your own is just part of it.  I’ve run into cancelled trains that left me scrambling to not become stranded somewhere, language barriers with no one to translate, and bad weather that ruined an all-outdoor itinerary.  You don’t know what sorts of situations you will run into while traveling, but you do know you will learn to adapt to them.  By yourself, there is a lot less pressure when things don’t work out like you wanted.  Solo travel gives you the experience to handle anything that goes wrong with confidence rather than panic.

You become comfortable spending time by yourself

I’ve definitely heard people express concerns about getting lonely while traveling by themselves.  As an extremely introverted person, I probably benefit from (and need!) the alone time of solo traveling more than most people would.  But whether you are the same way or not, being comfortable in only your own company is a valuable skill to learn.  Traveling by yourself gives you plenty of time to think, reflect, read, or do whatever makes you happy when you are on your own.  What better way to do this than by visiting somewhere fantastic?

You get to meet new people

Alone time is important, but so is making friends, and you can balance that when you are traveling by yourself.  When you are with others, it’s tempting to stick with the familiarity of only the people you know.  By yourself, it’s much easier to break out of that shell and meet new people.  Youth hostels are designed for connecting with people: you room with complete strangers, and the buildings usually have hang-out areas, game rooms, and a restaurant or bar.  In Copenhagen, my hostel roommates were other university-age women from all over the world.  Many travelers who stay in hostels are specifically looking to meet other travelers!

It’s a great self-confidence builder

After returning from my first trip by myself, I felt that if I could do that, I could do anything!  Successfully navigating planes and trains in another country is exhilarating, and a huge self-confidence boost.  I certainly felt more confident moving to the Netherlands for a semester because I already had experience traveling in other countries by myself.  If you like traveling, I highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and giving a solo trip a try.  It will be a valuable learning experience that you won’t forget!

Meet Nadège!

Author: Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands 

Hello again! Welcome back to the Netherlands and specifically, my flat, as today I will be introducing you to one of my unitmates! I am so excited to introduce you to Nadège, because she is one of the most welcoming people and the nicest friend! Nadège is a native Belgian as her home is Brussels. She is studying law and anthropology with a minor in art history! Now, instead of boring you with my description of her, I’ll let Nadège tell you about herself!

Me: Why did you come to UCU to study the liberal arts and sciences?

Nadège: Well, I would really like to work across disciplines. Combing law and anthropology seemed like a great choice based on my interests. I would really like to work with indigenous populations, the environment, and with human rights. The liberal arts and sciences allowed me to explore and learn about all of these things!

Me: Cool! How did you get interested in working with indigenous populations?

Nadège: When I was 14 a guy came to our lecture from a village and talked about how they are trying to fight big companies that want to take their land. From this experience, I knew I wanted to do anthropology, because learning about their culture and the preservation of it was so cool! But I knew I need something heavier in my background. I tried politics and law and I loved them! Law is my favorite now and with it I hope that one day I can be a legal expert working locally with indigenous peoples to help preserve their identity, culture, and protect their rights. Culture is so cool and I really want to help preserve it for places that have one. Coming from Belgium, I never felt like I had a culture and so I realize how special it is to have a culture and I want to protect that!

Me: You never felt like you had a culture? What do you mean?

Nadège: Belgium is such a new country; it was only formed in 1830! It doesn’t have a long history. Plus, the division between French and Flemish speakers in our country really hurts the ability to have a unifying culture! But, when I see indigenous peoples they have such a long history of tradition and culture and I want to help sustain that, because I have never felt that so strongly. The only time I really feel a cultural connection to other Belgians is at Christmas. Europe was super touched by Christianity and a lot of our events have to do with that. To be honest, I don’t really know what Christmas means in Christianity, but for me, Christmas always had a feeling of being connected to my community. I feel connected to the past and the people around me. But that is it! Culturally, I want to feel as connected to other Belgians as I do at Christmas all the time!

Me: What do you think created a feeling of never having a culture for you?

Nadège: We were always influenced by big countries. I actually know more about French politics than Belgium ones! We are like a transitional country I feel. All the artists have to go through France, not us, like Stromae! Lots of people think he is from Paris, but he is from my city, Brussels! Artists are immediately related to the Netherlands or France. We can’t really make something ours because it always goes through others to be heard by the world. Also, we are super international. I love that we are so international and multicultural, but also there are so many influences that we can’t make our own. It’s bad, but it’s also good. I admire the beauty of living in a deep cultural tradition, but I do love Belgium and being able to help construct our culture! Like we love to laugh and live life! We really relate to that and it is our attempt to create a national identity to be proud of!

Me: So how would you like to use this to contribute to the world?

Nadège: I want to help preserve culture, because I know how unconnected someone can feel when they don’t have the tie of culture connecting them with others. But beyond that, I want to help open debate between indigenous cultures and the international community. Indigenous communities aren’t always right. But I want to be a part of the debate and discussion to let those cultures live!

Me: I love your perception on culture! So, anything that you would like to say to the culture and people in the U.S. or Valpo?

Nadège: People should be proud of identity and culture and cherish it! Be proud to be in the US where there are so many people from other places. The diversity is so cool and can create a new culture! On se construit par notre histoire et celle des autres. C’est la beauté de notre monde. (trans. We build ourselves by our history and that of others. That is the beauty of our world.)

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