Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Author: studyabroad (page 1 of 41)

Studying, Traveling, and Everything in Between

Author: Emily Gustin

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Since my last post, I have been busy with schoolwork as well as traveling to new places near and far away. Other than my three classes at Westfield House (next to the Valpo dorm), I have two classes at a university called Anglia Ruskin. Currently, I am preparing to write essays for the end of term, one for each class– history of digital media and youth culture and media. The essays are worth 100% of my grade, which seems a little intimidating. At British universities, you are expected to prepare yourself for the lectures and seminars by doing the assigned readings and participating in class. However, your final grade is typically determined by a paper or presentation at the end of term. It took me a little while to get used to this system, but I think I like it– I enjoy the fact that there is more reading than homework that you have to turn in.

Five of us in the Valpo dorm don’t have class on Tuesdays, and we decided that we should make the most of that time. Throughout the month of February, we took two trips during the beginning of the week: one to Cork, Ireland, and the other to Prague, Czech Republic. We left on Monday nights and returned on Wednesday mornings for both trips. I have to admit, at times it felt like we could be on The Amazing Race— we were always rushing to catch a plane or a train or to get to class on Wednesday morning (we all made it). But it was definitely worth it for the amazing experiences I had!

Colorful houses in Cobh

In Cork, we explored the city and took a bus to a coastal town called Cobh (pronounced “cove”). Cobh had colorful buildings, fun cafes, and a gorgeous cathedral on the water. We didn’t have very much of an itinerary– we just enjoyed walking around and appreciating the view. We experienced snow, rain, and sunshine in the short time that we were in Ireland, and we all joked that we were all in Valparaiso (or “Val-pour-rain-snow”). Back in Cork, we went to some shops and an art museum, as well as a donut shop. Overall, I really loved our time in Cork and Cobh, and I would really like to visit Ireland again.

St. Colman’s Cathedral

Prague was another adventure, completely different than Ireland. The city was more fast-paced, filled with people, shops, and restaurants. I completely fell in love with the city and its architecture. Because Prague was never bombed from the war, many of the original buildings still remain, and they are stunning. We saw the Astronomical Clock, crossed the famous Charles Bridge and climbed up a hill (Petrinske Sady) to get an amazing view from above. We also went to Prague Castle and saw the beautiful St. Vitus Cathedral. For dinner, I ate beef goulash, which is a common dish in Czech Republic and other central European countries. All of us also tried trdelnik, a dessert that we had seen advertised all over the city in almost every cafe. It’s ice cream in a cone, but the cone is a churro-like substance. I had strawberries and chocolate on mine, and it was delicious!

Old Town Square in Prague

I can’t believe that I am halfway through the semester– It feels as though I arrived in Cambridge yesterday. I have been so blessed to have this opportunity and can’t wait to see what comes next!

: Eva, me, Andrew, Gina, and Peyton

I couldn’t get enough of this view!

Restricted Travel

Author: Julia Riordan

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

In light of the recently discovered virus, named Coronavirus, much of my travel has been restricted to the U.K.  We were additionally told that if the virus becomes progressively more prevalent in England, we risk being sent home. Obviously receiving this news was nerve-wracking and frustrating, yet, it has encouraged me to reflect positively on my time here.

a market I frequent in

I consistently find that when we are forced to enter a new chapter of our life, the process of leaving reminds us of our appreciation for the experience as a whole. Before arriving in Cambridge, the process of saying goodbye to friends, and reckoning with the idea that I would not be on Valpo’s campus for many months reminded me of my appreciation for my life as a Valpo student. In the midst of a busy semester, it is difficult to appreciate your experience as a student, and to reflect on the ways that your friends have positively impacted your life. Nonetheless, often times when we enter a new chapter of our lives, we are reminded of what our past experiences have done for us.

my favorite walkway in Cambridge

Similarly, after receiving countless updates about the severity of coronavirus, and its potential impact on my study abroad experience, I envisioned myself leaving behind the quaint, cobblestone streets of Cambridge, and returning to the States mid-winter. This prospect was scary and frustrating, but I felt an appreciation for Cambridge and this experience as a whole, that I had not foreseen. In fact, my semester abroad has been busy, and I have traveled throughout Europe in an attempt to see the world. But I have failed to take a moment to appreciate how at home I feel in Cambridge, and how much I have grown as a result of this experience.

the beautifully sunny and green colors of Cambridge

After weeks of living in Cambridge, I have certain cafes which I frequent nearly every day, favorite bakeries, and even certain walkways which I find so much beauty in. I have grown to love Cambridge even more than I believed possible, and the prospect of leaving so soon has encouraged me to reflect on my time here. The truth is, I have been so busy jetting around Europe, completing homework assignments and running to class, I have entirely neglected to reflect on my time here. I have finally settled in to my life here in Cambridge, and I believe I am a more independent, adventurous student as a result. Yet, this experience has been far more meaningful than I have realized. As a result of studying abroad, I have pushed myself out of my comfort zone. I feel much more relaxed here, and I have found time throughout my day to cook for myself, or enjoy a walk throughout town. In fact, I have discovered how to adopt a  more relaxed lifestyle since arriving in England, and I’m not sure I’m ready to give that up yet.

Chelsea Bun from my favorite cafe in Cambridge

It is not definite that we will be sent home before the end of our program. We are at the mercy of this virus, and are collectively hoping it does not continue to spread at such a fast rate. However, this experience has helped me to slow down, and reflect on my time as a study abroad student. In some ways, I am grateful to have been shown how much this experience has impacted me. I am grateful that I have realized my full appreciation for my study abroad program. In the meantime, I intend to further enjoy Cambridge, and enjoy every day that I get to study here.

A fun afternoon punting!

Que Dios Te Acompañe

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location:  San José and Heredia Provinces, Costa Rica

When I filled out my host family profile form for my study abroad application, it asked about religion. I remember writing that I would love to be with a family with whom I could attend church, but that it wasn’t the most important factor for me. I was lucky enough to be placed with a family that is a great fit for me in pretty much every aspect. I love spending time with my little siblings, enjoy the boisterousness of a house of 6, talk about everything from politics to future goals with my tico parents after my hermanitos are asleep, and we’ve been to church together plenty times.

Around 92% of Costa Ricans identify as Christian, including 76% Catholic, 14% Evangelical, and a mere 0.7% Protestant. As a Christian who has floated between mainline Protestant denominations (Methodist, Lutheran, and Episcopalian) my whole life, I approach religious services here with open-mindedness and curiosity, as I’m learning not just about new denominations, but about how those churches manifest in Costa Rican culture.

Catholic Sunday Service at Santa Rosa de Lima Iglesia Católica

My first full day in Costa Rica, I went to Sunday morning church with my host family. I had been warned by many that nothing in Costa Rica starts on time, so I was surprised when we walked up to the church at 10am and the service began right on the hour. (Church services, along with train departures and doctor’s appointments, turned out to be the few exceptions to the “tico time” rule.) I’d never actually been to a Catholic mass before, and there wasn’t a service folder that told me what to do, so I followed along as well as I could. I enjoyed the guitar-accompanied music, the breeze carrying through the wide-open church doors, and the relaxed atmosphere. It was nice to spend time with my new family and get an introduction to their religious life.

Across the street from the brightly colored Santa Rosa de Lima church.

Evangelical Service at Proyecto Abraham

My second week here, on my way to Longo Mai with my cohort and some Casa Adobe people, we went to a Sunday morning service at an evangelical church. Between the heavy focus on end-of-days theology and the auditorium-like setting, it wasn’t my style, and frankly, I didn’t feel super comfortable during the service. But outside of their services, Proyecto Abraham has a lot of community outreach projects that sounded interesting, and I’m still grateful for the chance to learn more about the diversity of churches and worship styles of Costa Rica.

Didn’t get a picture at Proyecto Abraham, but this is the main basilica in Santo Domingo. Due to Spanish colonial influence on urban planning, nearly every city in Costa Rica, including all the ones I’ve visited, has a basilica in the center, right across the street from the city park.

Noche de Música at Longo Mai

During our trip to Longo Mai, we held a music night with several community members, most of whom are immigrants from El Salvador. We sang songs from the Salvadoran and Nicaraguan Peasant Masses, which were written in the 60s and 70s after the Second Vatican Council allowed the customization of mass for different languages and cultures. The masses were immediately banned by oppressive governments, because they spoke of a liberating theology with God on the side of the poor.

I played a ukulele someone brought along, a Longo Mai resident played all the guitar parts from memory, others joined in on violin and percussion, and we all sang our hearts out. I asked Doña Edit what the songs meant to her, and she said she was so grateful to be able to sing them freely and openly, because she could “desaugándome” (let it all out): joy, sadness, gratitude, and everything in between. It was so beautiful to be able to experience a small part of what these protest hymns mean to so many Central Americans.

We held the noche de música at Edit’s house. This is the Catholic church in Longo Mai. The mural features Óscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated by the government for his activism in 1980. The flag is half a Costa Rica and half an El Salvador flag.

Rezo del Niño

I have attended two small prayer services called Rezos del Niño with my host family. In the Epiphany season (between Christmas and Lent), Costa Ricans celebrate by gathering on a weekend evening in a friend or neighbor’s home. After attending or hosting a rezo, each family finally takes down their large nativity scenes, which are usually adorned with Christmas lights. At the service, there’s usually a rezador, or professional singer, and the host leads the prayers. Everyone prays the rosary together, reflecting on the mysteries of Jesus’ birth and childhood and singing Christmas carols in between each decade (set of prayers). Afterward, everyone shares food and conversation.

I really enjoyed both rezos — while I’m not Catholic, I appreciated the repetitive, meditative nature of the rosary (as well as the chifrijo and tacos we enjoyed afterward!). After the first rezo, I successfully held a conversation with a brand-new acquaintance, which was a first for me in Spanish. (Looking back a month later, I have conversations with strangers all the time. Day-by-day progress is slow, but I’ve improved a lot). The second rezo was last weekend at our neighbor’s house. Due to maintenance and construction, our whole neighborhood didn’t have water for about 24 hours that weekend, and there was something extra meaningful about praying “Lord, have mercy” when we were all praying for our water to come back. It was lovely to experience a uniquely Costa Rican way of celebrating Jesus’ birth and bridging the time between Christmas and Lent.

My tico siblings, mom, and I on the same day we went to the second rezo del niño. (Theme of this blog — I don’t tend to take very many pictures at religious services!)

Devotions at Casa Adobe

Every Sunday, Casa Adobe hosts afternoon devotions. When I don’t have too much homework, I attend and always enjoy it. Fabio leads the music on his guitar, and Heidi accompanies on violin. We sing a few songs, pray for each other, and discuss a Bible passage together. I’m still working on getting to the level of Spanish where I’m able to contribute to a high-level theological discussion, but for now, I like listening! Everyone is invited to Sunday dinner afterward, which is always lovely. Since my two classmates/cohort members live at Casa Adobe, I like getting the chance to spend time there outside the class and to continue to get to know the community.

Casa Adobe on an unusually cloudy day.

Friday Night Mass at San Pablo Apóstol

A few weeks ago, my family went to mass on Friday night instead of Sunday morning. It was in a neighboring town at a larger church. One difference I noticed from the smaller Santa Rosa de Lima church was that they had “Sunday school,” or whatever you call Sunday school on Friday nights — the kids all went to a different room for most of the service, playing games and learning the Bible story of the night. In the main service, there was a small contemporary band that alternated with a few recorded tracks. There were also liturgical dancers during the praise songs, who looked so joyful the whole time. The service was a bit long, but I really liked it; thanks to Candlelight at Valpo, I’ll always be partial to evening services.

A (blurry, unfortunately) picture of the church in San Pablo, all lit up for the evening mass.

Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia for Santa Faustina

Yesterday, my tico parents took us to a church in Coronado for a special service that they were helping to run. All over Costa Rica, from households to postcards to key fobs, you find the same image of Jesus, who has rays of red and blue light coming from his hand, with the caption “Jesús, en Ti confío” (Jesus, I trust in You). This image was inspired by St. Faustina’s vision, which she had many years ago on February 22. We celebrated by talking about her life and work, and praying a modified rosary called the “Coronilla a la Divina Misericordia” (Crown of Divine Mercy). It was a really interesting and unique service, and it was lovely seeing my host parents in their element, leading the Coronilla and talking passionately about St. Faustina’s life and purpose.

The altar, featuring images of St. Faustina, Pope John Paul II (who canonized her), and the famous painting.

My tico dad speaking to the congregation about St. Faustina’s life.

Whenever I say goodbye to my host mom in the morning, she always says “Que Dios te acompañe” (May God be with you) as I leave for class. From hearing this common phrase, to praying together as a family whenever we drive somewhere, to getting the opportunity to attend such a wide variety of services, I’m grateful for the way I’ve been able to experience Christianity embedded in daily life here in Costa Rica.

Finding God in a beautiful forest and in my beautiful family.

“Studying” Abroad: Balancing School with Adventure

Author: Dakota Kampmeier

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

I’ll be the first to admit it: I was not planning on genuinely studying during my study abroad trip, and I was not shy about saying so. In my mind, study abroad was my one-way (okay, round-trip) ticket to finally live out my dream of seeing the world, traveling frivolously, and paying for it later. I did intend on going to class, but not that often, and I had absolutely no intent to get notably involved on my campus or make any serious commitments to clubs, committees, etc. My plan was to meet people from all corners of the globe and drag them along on weekend trips across Europe. My “plan” was to not have much of one at all, a task I’ve been challenged to accept since I got here.

view from my dorm room of Newton Hall

In high school, anyone would tell you that I was the person to go to if you needed something planned. Whether that be homecoming, junior prom, or a fundraiser, I was your go-to gal. When I got into college, I felt that the pull of wanting to plan everything was weighing me down, dragging me away from the spontaneity of my peers. A few months into school at Valpo I made a promise to myself: be more spontaneous. I vowed that I would ease myself into the free-spirited lifestyle of shrugging at a missed train and plans that fall through. So far, I’ve done a pretty good job at letting go of the need to be in control and always know what’s coming next. When traveling, this is a very valuable asset to have and it has already benefited me in just one month of being abroad. At the same time, I’ve let it get to my head a little bit too much.

Right now, every weekend in my planner is marked up in pencil with the names of cities I want to visit while I’m here. Prague, Lisbon, Cambridge, and Basel, just to name a few. Between the weekends, though, school assignments also emerge. I’ve found that if I want to return to the States well-traveled but also with a boosted GPA, I need to get my priorities in check. To be completely honest, traveling comes before school right now. I love my classes; small in size and not too taxing, they’re all very doable and, dare I say, easier than Christ College courses. I’m taking French again for the first time since high school and reading a novel a week for my intro to literature class. Truly, I love school and I love learning; I always have. However, I find it hard to sit in the library on a Saturday morning when I know I could be just a train ride away from the greatest adventure of my life.

So far, I’ve come to this conclusion: Monday-Thursday is dedicated to on-campus adventures, whether that be homework, making dinner with my unit mates, or catching an improv show with some friends. Friday-Sunday are my days to enjoy the “studying” portion of study abroad. I’m allotted five missed class periods for each of my courses, and I intend to use up all the ones for my Friday morning French class. My GPA will be important to me until the day I graduate, but at this time in my life, I recognize that there is a wealth of knowledge I cannot gain from inside the classroom. Keeping my grades up is vital for my success at Valpo, so I know that balance between schoolwork and traveling is a necessity.

The other day I realized, with a shock, that I have a mere twelve weeks left in Utrecht. There are so many places I want to go, so many I know I won’t get to this time around, and a handful that I must see before returning home. Right now, my grades are high, and I’m taking a low enough amount of credits to grant myself some free time to lay out preliminary plans for these trips. Studying abroad, like everything else, is a balancing act between work and play. Figuring it out on my own is daunting, of course, but also incredibly rewarding. I know that I’ll come home with a totally different worldview, full of knowledge I learned on and off school grounds.

A Weekend in Belgium

Author: Julia Riordan

Location: Brussels & Bruges, Belgium

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

This weekend, a friend and I traveled to Belgium. It was a hastily planned, last minute trip, but I loved every second of it. I initially was unaware that there were trains traveling from London to Belgium. This train, also called the Eurostar, actually travels in a tunnel through the ocean, connecting England to Mainland Europe! Ever since I heard about this train, I was interested in taking it. So, a week ago, my friend Sabrina and I booked train tickets and headed to Belgium.

First, I would just like to preface this blog by saying that the Eurostar is an extremely easy and efficient way to travel. The security lines were short, the stations were clearly marked and the train was clean. However, when you travel under the ocean, it is pitch black. There are lights in the train of course, but you cannot actually see any of the ocean (which was honestly really disappointing). However, it still amazes me that we crossed the ocean between England and arrived in Belgium in exactly two hours time.

Upon arriving in Belgium, Sabrina and I stumbled upon a restaurant called Waffle Factory. Although it is a chain throughout Belgium, I maintain that this was the best waffle that I had while in Belgium (I tried a LOT of waffles). It was slightly crispy and sweet, but also fluffy. After trying some traditional Belgian food, we headed to our airbnb located near the Brussels Midi/Zuid station. It was definitely not the most picturesque location, and a couple of the locals gave us weird looks as we would walk through residential areas with our loud American accents. Regardless, the airbnb was only about 15 minutes from the city center.

A Belgian waffle with Nutella

The center of Brussels was so unbelievably cool. As you walk down the narrow, cobblestones streets of Brussels, the smell of chocolate wafts between stores. Regardless of how late or cold it is, there will always be people laughing and enjoying dinner on the patios of the restaurants. Brussels is busy and crowded, but the city itself is quaint and friendly.

The city center of Brussels!

Our second day in Belgium, we decided to travel to Bruges. We stumbled upon this town while planning our trip and instantly decided that we HAD to visit. Bruges is essentially a medieval fairytale town, with unique architecture and numerous shops. This was arguably my favorite part of the trip. While in Bruges, we admired the architecture and tried some of the chocolate shops.

Bruges, Belgium

We spent our final day in Brussels, exploring the city more and trying traditional Belgian food. We were both sad to leave, but surprised at how easy the travel had been.

A beautiful chocolate fountain in a chocolate shop in Brussels

I was initially worried about my first international trip as a Study Abroad student. But, I know that as the semester progresses, I will gain more experience with travel! I’m sure I will have the opportunity to travel to many more countries this semester and I look forward to sharing my future travel with you!

Traditional Belgian Meatballs!

For the Love of Protesting

Author: Ella Speckhard

Location: Paris, France

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

My homestay in Paris is situated in the 11th arrondissement of Paris on Blvd Voltaire. This is a lovely neighborhood with lots of great places to eat, shop, and observe the “real” Parisian life away from the tourist traps. My host’s apartment is just a short walk away from Place de la Nation, a monument commemorating the square with the most active guillotines during the Revolution, as well as the Père Lachaise cemetery. This is the largest cemetery in Paris, a beautiful place to walk, and contains the graves of such famous people as Edith Piaf, Chopin, Oscar Wild, Jim Morrison, and the fictional character of Jean Valjean in Hugo’s Les Misérables. I’ve really enjoyed having easy access to these two spots; the cemetery is a lovely place to take a walk when things get overwhelming because there’s lots of trees and green space and it feels like a different world from the city that surrounds it. Living near Nation gives me access to a lot of different metro lines and makes getting around the city much simpler. However, what I didn’t know about this location is that it’s also central to the thing French people love most: protesting.

I receive regular emails informing me of different protests happening around the city so that I can try to avoid them. However, many of the protests pass right in front of my apartment so avoiding them is easier said than done. Luckily, I’m usually at school on the other side of the city when they take place so I’m not super inconvenienced, but I have witnessed a few and wanted to shine some light on what to expect from a protest in France.

The first protest I saw was one of the marches for the transportation strikes. It was early in the semester and I was interested to actually see something that I had heard so much about in my classes. I’ve never been to any marches or protests even in America, so I was a bit nervous. I shouldn’t have been though because it was basically just a boring parade with lots of signs. People came from all over France to participate so this was the largest protest I’ve seen so far, but I only caught the tail end of it, so I don’t have a great reference for how many people were marching. That evening during dinner my host turned on the news and we watched live footage of the protestors at their final destination, Place de la Bastille, and it was there that things got a little bit rowdy towards the end. We could hear the commotion in the distance, but luckily it didn’t affect our neighborhood at all. There were just a few fires from people burning their signs and people yelling at the police, but nothing violent or drastic.

The second protest I saw was a completely different story, and probably my most adrenaline-inducing experience abroad. It was a completely normal Tuesday afternoon and I was on my way home from classes, finally feeling confident in my routine. When I exited the station and went up the steps to the sidewalk, I could immediately sense that something was off. Cars were parked on the street so I couldn’t immediately tell what was happening, but I could see the sirens on top of police vehicles to my left. All I had to do was cross the street and walk for 20 feet and I would be home, but if I had been 30 seconds later getting off of the metro, I would’ve had to go somewhere else for the evening. I wasn’t sure if I should cross the street or not and hesitated for just a moment before the woman next to me decided to cross, so I followed her. When I stepped out into the street was when I saw a wall of police running my way, carrying their shields and batons. I jogged the rest of the way across the street to get out of their way and as I walked away from the commotion towards my apartment, I couldn’t help but turn around to see what was going on. People were stopped on the sidewalks watching, and as more and more police ran past, I truly felt like I was living out a movie scene. It was with the first blast of the tear gas cannon (I’m not really sure what the technical term for that is, but it felt like a cannon the way it shook the ground) that I snapped out of it and ran inside. Once I was inside, I felt comfortable watching things develop from the balcony, but only managed to get a few short videos because the tear gas was actually making my eyes itch even from 6 stories up. I was able to figure out that this wasn’t a transportation protest, but a protest of firefighters.


Although the video makes it seem pretty scary (and it was, I’ll be honest), I felt really lucky a few days afterward when I saw an article on social media about the other protests that the firefighters in Paris had done that week.

They stayed out on the street for about half an hour, and then the blasts I was hearing grew further and further away as the protest moved toward Place de la Nation down the street.

A video I took as things were breaking up and moving elsewhere

Finally, the most recent protest I’ve witnessed was extremely small, but loud. The group of marchers were led by a van with many speakers and a man yelling into his microphone about their cause. I’m not sure what they were protesting, but it’s amazing to think just how quickly I’ve grown accustomed to these types of events. I’ve only seen three in person, but they’re so deeply engrained into everyday life in France, and particularly Paris, that I didn’t even think twice when I heard the commotion on the street.


Hopefully I don’t run into any more protests where my safety is in question because that was a pretty intense experience, but I feel confident that I know the signs of a protest turned hostile and would be able to just turn in the opposite direction and find something to do until things settled down enough for me to go home. Inconvenient? Yes. But the French love their protests and so learning how to live with them is essential, especially where I’m living. Remember, priority number one when studying abroad is safety! Research where you’re staying before you arrive so that you’re able to prepare for the different facets of your neighborhood, for instance, the presence of a bunch of protests right in front of your apartment!

Getting Around

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José and Heredia, Costa Rica

Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks, I’m starting to get used to the varied methods of public and private transportation. My Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) started this week, and while Heidi oriented me to the university, she must have told me at least four ways to get to class in the morning, and four more to get home in the afternoon. I realized a few days ago that I had used six methods of transportation in one day: I walked, biked, took a train, took a bus, took an Uber, and took a taxi. So here’s what each of those are like for me in my everyday life.


My favorite method of transportation, though by far the slowest, is walking. This would be unthinkable to my last-semester self. I biked everywhere on Valpo’s campus — with my back-to-back classes and packed schedule, it was necessary. If I couldn’t bike due to snowy weather or a flat tire, I would lament how long it took to walk everywhere, and would be just a few minutes late to everything.

But here, walking is fun again. Between neighborhood dogs and darting through traffic, it might be the added thrill — pedestrians don’t have the right of way or very many crosswalks, so crossing the road is all about timing. The sunny weather and better views certainly help, as does the fact that here, absolutely no one will care if I’m a few minutes late. My daily walk has been to Casa Adobe, where the Valpo study center is located, about 20 minutes from my house. There are a few different routes between my house and Casa Adobe. I prefer the one that I can’t take if it’s starting to get dark outside. Here, people say streets are dangerous at night if they’re sola — if there aren’t any houses around, so you might end up walking alone. But the sola route has fewer cars to dodge, and it takes me on a road bordered by trees through a local park, so it’s particularly pleasant early in the morning.

The sola route on a sunny morning.


Last week, in anticipation of having to catch the 6:45 train for classes at the UCR, I borrowed a bike from Casa Adobe. Despite my bike being my lifeline back at Valpo, it’s more difficult here. With more hills, lots of traffic, and worse sidewalks, biking can be a bit dangerous, especially when I’m coming home during rush hour. With the added steps of retrieving my bike from the garage at home and stashing it at Casa Adobe, biking and walking from my house to the train station end up taking about the same amount of time. Maybe as I get more confident in this new environment, something will change, but I haven’t gotten the hang of biking here yet.

My bike, waiting in the garage for the next time I decide to try it.


The train is definitely the most reliable source of transportation I have access to. It always follows the same schedule, arriving just a few minutes before 6:46 am every weekday. But it’s a far cry from the South Shore Line. Going from the suburbs into the city on a weekday morning means it’s rush hour — every car is packed full of people. I’m not very assertive in a crowd, so I usually end up having to ride a few stops in the precarious closed-in space between train cars, with the floor and walls moving and no handles in sight. It’s a relief once we get closer to the city, people start getting off, and I can make a dash for the stability of the train car, grabbing on to an overhead handle.

The train also gets me to school really early. The train arrives at 7:15, so I have a full 45 minutes to wander around campus, grab coffee, or do some last-minute homework before class begins. I can’t complain, because the it’s the fastest way to get anywhere. The timeworn car may rock back and forth on the tracks as we move, more boatlike than trainlike, but that’s part of the adventure, right? The views out the window, the price, and the time are unbeatable. I love the train.

Santa Rosa’s train tracks. I wish I had a picture from the train, but it’s usually far too crowded to get my phone out.


I’ve taken fewer Ubers and taxis than anything else to get around. They’re more expensive, take more steps to catch one, and require conversation. My first weekend here, I took an Uber to and from the mall to buy pants (my biggest study abroad advice — check your suitcase to make sure you actually grabbed all the clothes you planned on taking out of your closet!!). The first driver I had said only a few words, but my driver home was very chatty. While I was worried at first I would make a fool of myself, after he realized I was from the US, we talked and joked about cultural and language differences, and it was a lot of fun. It was definitely a good step toward becoming more confident in my Spanish and acclimating to the culture. Speaking of culture — in Costa Rica, when you take a taxi, you sit in the backseat, but when you take an Uber, you sit in the front. Not totally sure why, but the more you know!

A pic from Longo Mai, because it’s weird to take pictures in Ubers.


The bus is my ticket home, in more ways than one. The train only runs at rush hour, so when I get out of Spanish class at 1 pm, I take a bus or two instead. Also, as proof that I won’t overstay my travel visa, I bought a bus ticket to a neighboring country before going through immigration. Buses are everywhere — while I’ve heard nothing about a formal timetable, I’ve never had to wait longer than a few minutes for a bus. And I’ve taken them everywhere — to get home from class, to get around my neighborhood, city, or province, and to travel to, from, and within San José.

There are (at least) two ways to get home by bus after class. If it’s close to an hour, I take the direct bus from the UCR to Santo Domingo. This one requires paying a lot of attention — since it’s heading all the way to the city of Heredia, the bus doesn’t like to stop unless it has to, so when I’m approaching my neighborhood, I pull this little cord next to my seat and hope the bus driver will let me off. It’s a comfortable bus though, less crowded than the train, and having a direct route from school to (near) home is a blessing.

The other way to get home is less certain, and I’m not too confident in it yet. I can go to the bus stop, take literally any bus into downtown San José, walk around the corner, and take any bus whose sign in the window lists “SANTO DOMINGO” as a stop. I’m still weirded out by the concept of not worrying what specific bus or route to take, but it does give me freedom and flexibility, since I can take it at any time, and if I want, take a detour into downtown San José to hang out in the city after class.

This isn’t the bus I take, but there are so many buses on UCR’s campus. Here’s one of them!

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled recently:

  1. micah 6:8 espanol: The Casa Adobe community holds devotions every Sunday evening. I finally made it to one this past Sunday, and didn’t bring a Bible, so I looked up the verse for discussion in both Spanish and English to have them side by side.
  2. what is vitamaiz: I went with my host family this weekend to visit our grandmother’s house. On Saturday, I saw her stir something flour-like into a pot of hot water on the stove, and a few minutes later she handed me a mug full of a warm, light-colored drink. I wasn’t really sure what it was but drank it anyway – not my favorite, but it was pretty sweet. I saw her pull out the box later, and later googled the name of the product, but I still don’t really know what it is – some kind of corn drink, probably? Some cultural mysteries can’t be solved even by Google!
  3. how to get US shows in costa rica: I’m an avid fan of The Good Place, so I was very sad when I tried to log into my Hulu account here and it blocked me because I’m not in the United States. Ever since, I’ve been searching for a way to watch the last several episodes and the series finale, but no luck so far! If you have any idea how to do it, please let me know 🙂
  4. wonder park movie summary: One of my host family’s favorite activities is to watch movies together, usually in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. I can follow along pretty well, but sometimes my limited vocabulary will cause me to miss the point of an important scene. I’ve taken to googling the plot summaries of movies so I can read along and keep track of what’s happening.
  5. C2 grammar spanish: I’m taking two Spanish classes this month – grammar and conversation. There are six levels from A1 to C2, and I placed into B2 for conversation, but there aren’t enough students to offer B2 grammar this month. I had the choice of an easier or harder Spanish class, and after trying both and some frantic googling to make sure I wouldn’t be in too over my head, I chose the harder class. It’s going to be a challenge, but I think I’m up for it!

I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like I really have a handle on getting around Costa Rica. I told a classmate how to take the bus from UCR to Santo Domingo today, and I can only hope that when I ask him tomorrow, the directions made sense! But I’m grateful for the number of different ways I can get from here to there. It’s exciting having the freedom and ability to go pretty much anywhere, with just a little forethought, a few solid Spanish phrases, and some change in my pocket.

Taking in all the sun I can.

Making a New Home

Author: Emily Gustin

Location: Cambridge, England

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

After a few weeks, I feel I am finally settled into life in Cambridge. It was not the easiest journey to get to this point, but I am glad for the struggle– it has let me grow in ways that I never would have otherwise.

Culture shock is a strange experience and difficult to describe because it affects everyone in different ways. For me, I was finding it hard to talk to the people in my classes. In British universities, students choose a course of study and take modules (classes) in that subject with mostly the same people throughout their degree (unlike liberal arts schools in the US, where students take classes in different subjects). So, when I showed up to my first class, I was definitely the odd person out– everyone had already been taking classes together since the start of their first year, and they were already a tight-knit group. I felt self-conscious and concerned that I might not make any friends, since I was an outsider. It took a couple weeks, but some of my classmates have opened up and I feel comfortable having conversations with them– I just had to be patient and give them and myself some time to adjust.

Moving away from my family and friends has also been difficult for me, but I have found such comfort in talking to my cohort– we are all in the same situation, and I am so thankful to have them as a support system. Because of them, I know that I am never alone.

When I walk through the streets of the city, I feel like I am a part of it, fully immersed into a new way of life that did not seem possible a month ago. Getting to know the city has been one of my favorite parts of living here, but I also wanted to explore places outside of England. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Milan, Italy, for my first trip outside of the UK. I went with two others in the Cambridge group, Grace and Katie. Traveling is a wonderful thing, but we learned that you have to be prepared to be patient. It’s a lot of work just to get where you want to go, including many forms of transportation (train, bus, plane, metro, and others). After arriving in Milan, we had to figure out the metro system (in Italian, which none of us could read) to get to our hostel. Thanks to Google Maps, we were able to find the correct route to take.

We had two full days in Milan. The Duomo di Milano (Milan Cathedral) is a beautiful, massive building in the heart of the city, and it’s hard to miss. It took over six hundred years to build and is the 5th largest church in the world. We were lucky enough to go to an organ vespers service, so we even got to go inside for free. All of the readings were Italian! We spent much of our time in Italy enjoying the art and architecture of Milan. The three of us went to Pinacoteca di Brera (Brera Art Gallery) and Castello Sforzesco (Sforzesco Castle), which had amazing collections of Italian art, as well as art from around the world (including Michelangelo’s last sculpture and Mategna’s Lamentation of Christ, which are both very famous).  We also got to see Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, which was an amazing experience; I couldn’t believe that I was seeing such a piece of art history.

Grace, me, and Katie in front of Duomo di Milano

Tagliatelle bolognese—one of the several pasta dishes I enjoyed in Italy

Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, located in Santa Maria delle Grazie

Katie, Grace, and I did not have a shortage of Italian food; we had either pasta or pizza for every single meal while we were there, and I have no complaints. My favorite meal was homemade rigatoni with tomato sauce and burrata cheese on top, complete with custard pie for dessert– it was all so delicious. We also had gelato several times, which did not disappoint.

I had appreciation for these yellow apartments that we saw while walking the streets of Milan

When we started the journey back to England, I think we all felt a little different, but in all the best ways. We had seen some of the most iconic architecture and art pieces in Italian history, eaten some amazing food, and mastered public transportation in another language. Though we were tired, I felt a sense of accomplishment. As the three of us headed for the airport once again, I watched the sun come up over the mountains and I felt a moment of stillness. It was such a beautiful view, and I was so thankful to have experienced it.

Our last glimpse of the cathedral

After taking a taxi, a bus, a plane, and a train, we made it back to Cambridge safe and sound. I think we all agreed that it felt a little bit like coming home.

Twelve Hours in Rotterdam

Author: Dakota Kampmeier

Location: Rotterdam, Netherlands

Pronouns: She/Her/Hers

Rotterdam is a city in the Netherlands full of funky architecture and packed food courts. I was told before visiting that the buildings are so unique because Rotterdam “got super bombed” during the war by the Germans. As it turns out, this bombing was a complete accident and the result of delayed communication. Leave it to the Dutch to find the silver lining, though, because they took their destroyed city as an opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure of Rotterdam. Only two buildings survived the bombings, a rectangular-looking building where the Germans held office and the fifteenth-century Grote of Sint-Laurenskerk church, which the Germans used as a lookout tower. Rotterdam is an alluring mix of old and new, skyscrapers that tower over cobblestone roads and traditional Turkish foods inside a modern all-glass food court. Exploring the city for a day with a local added an appreciation for the atmosphere.

My buddy Sam played tour guide for me and my friend Maddy, another American girl, and showed us all the good spots in his hometown. We ate fries in a cone called “Patatje Oorlog” and wandered the streets in a drizzle as Sam explained what the many statues that peppered the city represented (spoiler alert: they almost all serve as reminders of that time the Germans bombed the city in the forties). We wandered around the infamous cube houses, another testament to the architecture of the city. While they look tiled from the outside, apparently inside the homes are completely level. That sort of thing boggles my mind because I’ve never heard of someone living in a lopsided cube before, but they were cute and just enough of a tourist trap that I ended up buying a postcard with a photograph of the houses. As the rain came down a little harder, we ducked inside the Market Hall, a food court of sorts on the first floor of an apartment building. This building, too, was shaped oddly enough that if you looked straight up through the mural on the inside, you could see the window of someone’s bathroom about a hundred feet above your head. After purchasing some sought-after frozen yogurt, we wandered back outside and stood on the steps of the bustling market, seemingly ignorant to the fat rain drops that fell into my spoon.

Once all the yogurt was consumed, Sam pointed out a small bookstore beyond the market and we headed over to check it out. Inside was the most obscure collection of books I had ever seen. From two five-hundred page volumes about Belgium transport to a comic-type book series called “The Book of Bunny Suicides: Little Fluffy Rabbits Who Just Don’t Want to Live Anymore”, I can assure you that you’ve never read a single book in the store. Without meaning to, we spent almost an hour pouring over the strange titles and bending over in laughter at “The Hypnotic Power of Crop Circles”. By the time one of us checked our watch, it was time for us to catch the movie “1917” in an attempt to wait out the rain, which we did. The streets were slick with water when we exited the theater and the rest of our evening, though chilly, was dry.

The evening consisted mostly of finding a place to eat. 7pm is dinner rush hour, and every place Sam suggested had a line out the door. We finally found a German-chain Italian restaurant (do with that what you will) and ordered personal pizzas and glasses of wine to recap the day and get to know each other even better. After dinner, we took a half-hour stroll to the other side of town, passing through a forest of flags by the river, and we guessed (poorly) which countries they belonged to. Just over an industrial-looking bridge we found Hotel New York, a sweet building nestled along the water that used to be the harbor where ships would set off for America, carrying immigrants and all the hopes and dreams one could manage. We sat at the bar of the hotel and enjoyed drinks and good company before catching the metro back to the station for a late-night train ride into Utrecht.

Exploring Rotterdam, even just for twelve hours, was a pleasant surprise. Even though it was only a thirty-five minute train ride from Utrecht, it was unique in a way that made it feel like a completely different world. There was so much that we didn’t see, but still I returned to school with sore feet and a full camera roll. Sooner or later I’ll venture outside of the Netherlands and see the rest of Europe, but I can’t forget how much this tiny country has to offer, either.

Mucho más allá

Author: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Santo Domingo, Heredia, Costa Rica

I arrived here in Santa Rosa, Costa Rica a week and a half ago. From classes starting, to life with a new family, to weekend adventures and a trip to Longo Mai, it’s been a whirlwind. While I was definitely nervous for the semester, there was one thing that helped as I prepared to leave. Hannah, a Valpo alum and friend who stayed with the same family, connected me with our tica mom* on WhatsApp, and she sent me a delightful voice message in which my new siblings – two younger girls and a toddler boy – introduced themselves. Whenever I felt stressed or nervous about leaving, I would replay it and smile as “hola Yena, cómo estás, te amo” filled my ears.**

My tica sisters made me welcome cards that they gave me when I arrived, complete with glitter.

Posing with my tica sisters and cousin, with plenty of Valpo gear to go around!

When people ask me about my first impression of the country, I talk about its natural beauty. It’s an easy thing for me to talk about in Spanish, but it’s also my natural first reaction. I chuckle to myself every time my tica mom asks if I need to grab a jacket whenever the temperature dips below 75 degrees Fahrenheit. I take advantage of every opportunity to study, have class, or walk around outside. And I will never get tired of the mountains. We’re located in the Central Valley, which means the mountains surround us. To locals, they’re unremarkable, background, but I will never get tired of gazing at them on my walk to class, at sundown, or while driving around the city.

Beautiful cloudy mountain views on our drive to Longo Mai.

While I’m very grateful for how lovely my time here has been so far, it hasn’t been without its mishaps. One morning was particularly trying – first, I couldn’t leave my house because I couldn’t figure out how to unlock the front door and no one was awake. Upon leaving my house, the neighborhood dogs jumped on me and chased me down the street. After shooing them off and arriving at Casa Adobe, the front door, which I don’t have a key to, was locked! But for every unfortunate occurrence, there have been many more joys, from swimming in the river and singing old songs with locals at Longo Mai, to playing and laughing with my tico siblings, to trying and loving new foods. I’ve learned so much in class already, and arguably even more in my everyday life.

We went for a swim in a beautiful river while at Longo Mai.

A quick explanation of what my study abroad program looks like, since it’s pretty unusual: while I’m a part of a Valpo study center program, I’m the only student from Valpo in Costa Rica this semester. Thankfully, the Valpo study center is based out of a house called Casa Adobe, the hub for several volunteer and educational programs, and the residence for families, volunteers, and employees from around the world. Like previous semesters, I’m taking an introductory history course with the program coordinator, Heidi, but we are joined by two Casa Adobe volunteers who arrived here around the same time I did – Juliana from Bolivia and Andrea from El Salvador. I was very nervous about studying abroad alone, but now I feel lucky that I get to do my first class, a few trips, and orientation activities with a unique international cohort.

From left to right, my cohort – Andrea, me, and Juliana – at El Museo de Arte Costarricense.

Some Costa Rica things I’ve googled so far:

  1. san jose airport map: Preparing myself so I wouldn’t get lost immediately after arriving!
  2. how to ask for check costa rica: I went to lunch alone in a restaurant for the first time. Unlike in US restaurants, the waiter doesn’t rush to give you the check right after you eat, but I wasn’t sure how long I had to wait. After waiting and watching, I realized that I was supposed to go up to the counter to pay. Good thing there were other people in the restaurant, or I may have waited forever!
  3. incofer train schedule: Figuring out how early to wake up in order to catch the train to go to San José with my cohort on Saturday (turns out – very early). It’s the same train that I’ll take to my Spanish classes at the University of Costa Rica in February.
  4. how to add minutes kolbi: Here, instead of phone company contracts, you prepay for phone “minutes” on your Costa Rican SIM card. I knew that most stores were able to help you add more minutes, but I wasn’t sure quite how to ask.
  5. pupusa recipe with squash: While in Longo Mai, Doña Edit taught us how to make pupusas, a delicious Salvadoran corn flatbread stuffed with cheese, squash, and beans. I knew immediately that I would want to make them again.
  6. costa rica earthquake: There were two earthquakes while we were in Longo Mai! As I’m from the Midwest, I’d never experienced an earthquake before. Both of them were of moderate intensity, causing little to no damage, but they occurred in the middle of the night, and I slept right through them!

A phrase has been knocking around in my head ever since I heard it last week. My tica family and I went to see Frozen 2 in theatres. In Spanish, instead of singing “Into the Unknown”, Elsa sings “Mucho Más Allá”, a phrase that colloquially means “far beyond.” If each word is literally translated, it sounds like “a lot more over there”, which made me laugh. But the chorus of the song has been stuck in my head ever since, which makes sense, as I am “mucho más allá” from my home, my family and friends, and everything that’s familiar. Still, I’m grateful to be here, and can’t wait to see what more adventures this semester holds.  

The view in our backyard from the garage stairs at sunset. San José is just below the mountains in the center left.

*The word for Costa Rican is tico, and for brevity’s sake, I will use tico/a to refer to the members of my host family.

** The “J” sound is different in Spanish than in English, so my name sometimes ends up with a Y instead of a J in spoken and written Spanish.

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