Valpo Voyager

Student Stories from Around the World

Author: studyabroad (page 1 of 42)

London Stage: Spring Break Trip

Name: Carolyn Dilbeck

Location: London 

My friends and I

Hello! I’m Carolyn , a class of 2026 Communications major! I first heard about the London Stage spring break trip, from a friend of mine, and I knew it was an opportunity I needed to take advantage of. I have long had a passion for theatre, musical theatre in particular, and participated in many productions with my high school as well as CYT (Christian Youth Theatre). In fact, the friend who had mentioned it to me had been in several CYT shows with me, and also had the opportunity to go on this trip, which was so special, and definitely a full-circle moment for me. London had also been a travel destination on my bucket list for years, so I knew I could not pass up the chance to study one of my favorite subjects in the world in a place I had been wanting to visit for so long!

I was initially a bit intimidated, however, because I didn’t know anyone else going besides my friend, and had never been to Europe before, or out of the country with my family, for that matter. However, Professor Lee Orchard, who was leading the trip and had done it many times, was very knowledgeable about the itinerary, which immediately helped put me at ease.  He had learned from his experiences with other groups and was able to tell us everything we needed to know beforehand, which made the process of preparing for the trip much easier and less stressful, for which I am very grateful. Additionally, all of us who attended the trip got to know one another fairly quickly and became a close-knit group by the end of it. Although we all came from different backgrounds and studied different subjects in school, we shared a passion for theatre and an enthusiasm for learning, which was really cool.

I have to say it may have been one of the most exhausting but exhilarating two weeks of my life! In London, we usually had class in the morning, where we discussed the show we were going to see that day. We were split into pairs, with each pair having to give a presentation on one of the shows. We saw ten of them during our time there! They ranged from adaptations of Greek tragedies to comedies like The Play That Goes Wrong, and everything in between! They were all of very good quality, but each was definitely a unique experience and gave us a lot to talk about in our discussions of the shows. Time was also built in to see many of the major historical and cultural sites as well, such as Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, and the National Gallery of Art.


Big Ben

Additionally, we had 4 days free for independent exploration in smaller groups, during which we could choose what we wanted to see. For example, I had the opportunity to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London, as well as to meet up with other Valpo students studying abroad in Cambridge! As much as we got to see, though, there were also many other things I wish I would have, so I would love to make it back someday. Overall, it was an incredible experience that I would recommend to those who are passionate about theatre, or the rich culture and history of London!

Spring Break Healthcare: Study Abroad Trip in Italy

Name: Jasmin Bonilla

Location: Italy

When I first got accepted into the spring break study abroad program last November, I was thrilled! Initially, I was nervous that I wouldn’t get my first choice. It didn’t feel real until the week before my departure date. On March 4th, I was filled with anxiety and excitement as I boarded the bus to Chicago O’hare. After an 8-hour flight and a layover in Frankfurt, Germany, I finally arrived in Rome. I felt a great sense of gratitude as I got to see the famous Spanish Steps and Trevi Fountain. Overall, I gained so much knowledge about Italy’s healthcare system, history, and its culture. Many are unaware of the concept of socialistic medicine, but I learned that Italy’s National Health Service provides universal coverage to all residents and citizens, including migrants. I also visited Binario 95, which is a social welfare center that provides services to migrants or individuals who need assistance. It was surprising to learn that many Italians don’t obtain a college degree unless they are pursuing a career in STEM.

As a group, we explored Rome, Tuscany, Florence, Cinque Terre, and Venice. Some of the historical sites we saw included the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s Basilica, Colosseum, Roman Forum, Palatine Hill, and the Accademia Gallery. Our program tour leader, Matteo, made the experience more enjoyable as he brought enthusiastic energy everyday.


Spring Break, Study Abroad Group

The first thing that I noticed about Italian culture was the food. A typical Italian meal consists of an appetizer, first course, and second course. Now you bet I was full most of the time! Overall, the food was very delicious, and some of the main dishes were risotto, rigatoni mezza maniche, ravioli, and lasagna. The best desserts were gelato and tiramisu! My favorite study abroad experience was touring the vineyard and winery at La Pineta Farm in Florence. I did my first wine tasting and learned to drink it the right way. After the trip, I felt like a changed person, but in a good way. I made new friendships and was exposed to an entirely different life. I learned many aspects of Italy’s qualitative healthcare system, which I will take with me as I work towards reducing health disparities and improving population health. . Overall, if you are unsure of studying abroad for an entire semester, I highly recommend participating in a spring break study abroad trip! It’s a life changing experience that you’ll never forget.





A picture of me












A Weekend In The Kansai

Name: Grace Jendreas

Location: Kansai, Japan


One of my favorite things about living in the Kansai Region is always having something new to do. I’m a quick train ride away from cities like Osaka, Kyoto, and Nara, so weekends are always filled with so many fun adventures. I will be highlighting on what a regular weekend spent in the Kansai looks like!

On Fridays, I love to meet up with friends after classes are over to get dinner. There are so many great restaurants near Kansai Gaidai University. You’ll always find a new place to try when you go out. My friends and I love going to this small yakitori place which is right down the street from KGU.

I like to spend my Saturdays in Osaka. There is so much to do in Osaka like visiting one of the many shopping malls, going to the aquarium, seeing the Osaka castle, or trying street food in Dotonbori. My favorite place I have visited in Osaka so far has been Dotonbori because there is so much to do around the iconic Glico sign. There are so many food stands that all look so good, but a must try is Dotonbori’s well known Takoyaki. There are so many stores, karaoke rooms, and pachinko slots to enjoy. After having some amazing food and doing some shopping I love to take my friends to round one where they have arcade games, photo booths, karaoke rooms, bowling alleys, and claw machines. It’s a great place to go on cold or rainy weekends.


On Sundays it’s nice to wake up early and catch a train to Kyoto to visit temples and shrines during the day. Kyoto has so much culture and history with shrines, temples, and museums no every street. It is so peaceful walking through the beautiful gardens and intricate shrines of Kyoto. It’s very common to wear traditional kimonos to the shrines. I haven’t been able to yet but I would love to wear a kimono to the shrines in the future.

With cherry blossom season upon us I can’t wait to visit all the shrines with the cherry blossoms. I haven’t gone to Nara yet, so I hope to visit one weekend while the cherry blossoms are blooming. There is still so much to explore in the Kansai Region and I can’t wait to go to so many other places here in the future.


A Glimpse of Spain

Name: Andrea Correa

Location: Sevilla, Spain

I always knew I wanted to study abroad, and I didn’t just do it to complete my degree requirement of a semester abroad, I did it because I felt there was something out there for me. I am a Junior, with a double major in International Business and Marketing and I graduate in 2024. I studied abroad Fall of 2022 in Sevilla, Spain and it has now become my second home. The memories I have, the people I met, and all of the places I saw will forever be nostalgic. Not only did I experience living in a different country, but I also saw the beauty of different cultures surrounding each country in Europe. As a first generation, Hispanic student, I dreamed about having the opportunity to study abroad across the world, and I will forever be grateful for the opportunity Valpo gave me and how easy the process went for me. 


A picture of me in Plaza de España

I remember the day I had to leave, I did not feel nervous or anxious, I was leaving my comfort zone and my family (I’m a commuter and I have never been away from home,) yet I was overwhelmed with excitement about this new journey. I got on a plane by myself, and left to a country where I knew absolutely no one. I learned how to be independent and I came back with so much more confidence. I experienced so much culture shock, from languages, to the way people live, the food and the overall school experience. I mean, when will you see an American student, hop on the metro with their carry-on luggage to class, on a Friday because they’re traveling to a different country that weekend and heading to the airport right after classes? Most likely, never. However, I was able to quickly adapt and immerse myself into the beautiful Andalusian culture. I became used to seeing horse-carriages outside, a 30 minute walk became the norm for me, seeing women dancing Flamenco in every corner, and siesta time (my favorite). Spanish people prioritize socializing with others, which is why from 2-5pm, you will see all the locals having tapas at the bars with a glass of wine in their hand. I realized how much of a work/life balance there is in Europe, something that I believe does not exist here in the U.S.

Sunset from the Setas de Sevilla

Horse Carriages


It was also fairly cost efficient to travel around, so I visited 7 other countries to broaden my horizons. Basically, here is how some of my weeks would go in Spain: I would go to class from Monday through Thursday (no one had class on Fridays), and from Friday to Sunday, I would spend it in another country with my roommates. I was privileged enough to visit: France, Italy, Vatican City, Portugal, the U.K., Belgium, and the Netherlands. Each and every one had so much beautiful history and I loved trying my best to learn certain phrases from each country. I also traveled to many parts of Spain, like Ibiza, Barcelona, and many of the southern regions that border Seville.


You might think that I traveled more than I went to class, but that is not entirely true. I took 4 courses: International Business, International Marketing, International Economics, and my favorite, Food & Wine in Spain, which was my only class that was in Spanish. I learned so much about the gastronomy in Spain, like Iberian ham being extremely popular (and good) and of course I learned how to make Spain’s most famous dish, Paella! The lovely culture of wine with every meal, and how religions have impacted the gastronomy in Andalusia. I also had a better understanding of what was going on with the current Ukraine/Russian War because we always talked about it in my IB class, and now I know how companies market themselves differently in every country they are in. I also participated in a 10k marathon with over 20 thousand other people. Studying in another country really opened my eyes and made me realize how much we, as Americans, don’t talk about certain topics or how little knowledge we have on other cultures.


The Famous Paella!

Oranges on every tree in Sevilla! 



My roommates and I


Studying abroad helps you understand and appreciate different cultures, it broadens perspectives and it teaches you new ways to measure quality of life. I truly believe that every person should have the opportunity to study abroad because it changes you. It makes you a better person and a better qualified person in a pool of applicants when applying for jobs. I will end this blog with a famous quote from Saint Augustine, “The world is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” 

Costa Rica Study Abroad Experience

Name: Dominic Yanke

Location: Heredia, Costa Rica

Me in scrubs

Staff and I at the Christmas Party


My internship was on Mondays and Wednesdays from 3-7pm at Dra. Franco’s medical clinic. I took vital signs/patient histories, assisted with minor medical treatments such as wound cleaning and ulcer treatments, brought the requested medicines and checked expiration dates, and helped with various other tasks. The staff and I volunteered at a community health fair, and we also had a Christmas Party with a secret Santa gift exchange. Everyone was sad when my internship ended.

Staff and I at the Health Fair


I took Tropical Ecology and Introduction to Translation at Universidad Veritas. Tropical Ecology was centered around field trips. One field trip was to La Selva Biological Research Station. The other field trip was to the botanical garden at the University of Costa Rica. During both trips, we sampled biodiversity. My group chose arthropods, and the other group chose birds. 

A colorful crab at Cahuita

At Universidad Bíblica Latinoamericana, I took a class on Indigenous and Afro-American religions. The class involved a lot of writing assignments. The final essay was the hardest part of the class because it was 10-15 pages in Spanish, not including the title page and bibliography. It also required a minimum of 10 sources for the bibliography. The class was very challenging yet rewarding because I had to read and write in Spanish on theological topics. 

I had History and Ethnology of Costa Rica with Prof. Heidi Michelsen, the VU Study Center Program Director. It focused on the history and culture of Costa Rica as well as other Central American countries. The class had two field trips; one to the Caribbean Coast and the Cahuita National Park in Limón and the other was to a small farming community populated by Salvadoran refugees that also included a visit to Manuel Antonio National Park in Puntarenas. Both parks were beautiful and had a variety of wildlife. I swam in the Pacific Ocean at Manuel Antonio Park, and Heidi and I snorkeled at the beach in Cahuita Park, on the Atlantic Ocean.   Both were amazing first-time experiences for me. 

Host Family

I had a host mom, Maritza, and a host brother, Ronaldo. My host mom gave me gigantic meal portions and I eventually had to tell her that I wanted smaller portions. They took me to the farmer’s market (Fería) with them a few times and took me shopping once. Once my host brother got a car, he was able to help drive me to school for a field trip early one morning and to the airport when I left. Overall, my host family was really nice, helpful, supportive, and they enjoyed my higher level of Spanish because we could communicate with each other easier.

“La mejor de Limón es la gente” (The best thing about Limón is the people)

Experience in General

Overall, I very much enjoyed my internship, classes, and my stay with my host family. The main challenges I faced were bus transportation and planning my classes. I recommend, if possible, choosing classes that match the train schedule so that the need to take a bus is limited.  (The train gets you there faster and has a more predictable schedule.) 

Looking Back and Looking Forward

Name: Emily Gustin

Location: Cambridge, England

It has been over six weeks since I was recalled from studying abroad in Cambridge, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect on my experience. Leaving to live in a country that I had never been to was very difficult, but it doesn’t compare to how I felt when I had to come back to the US. Adjusting to change has never been a strong suit of mine, and this has been one of the biggest transitions of my life. Oddly enough, my whole study abroad experience has prepared me for something like this, and I’m doing my best to focus on being adaptable and calm in a situation that I cannot control.

I know that many are experiencing grief at this time about all kinds of things. Friends and family are missed; plans, trips, and graduations are cancelled. Some deal with financial instability, job loss, or even the illness itself. This virus has changed almost all aspects of life and everyone has been affected by it in some way. I never expected to come home to such a halted society, which has been one of the hardest things that I have had to cope with since I have returned. Slowly, I have found a new “normal” and have learned to accept my current situation. As cliché as it sounds, I really do believe that everything happens for a reason, and sometimes things have to fall apart to make way for new things.

As for now, I try my best to focus on the positives. Slowly but surely, I am finishing up my schoolwork for the end of the term, which will be over in just a few weeks. As the weather improves, I am spending more time outside and going on walks. I am video chatting with my Cambridge cohort every week, as well as my friends from Valpo. I am learning to be gentle with myself each day and doing my best, which is all I can really ask from myself.

I cherish my memories of Cambridge and everywhere else that I was able to travel to– I am so grateful to have had the opportunity. I met new people and learned so much about myself and about cultures that are different from my own. I know that someday, when all is well, I will return to England, as well as the rest of Europe, to see more of the world. For now, I pray for healing and look forward to when we can all be together again.

To all the students who read this blog: if you’re considering studying abroad, you should do it. Everyone who comes back always says that “it changes your life.” It does, but maybe not in the way you think it will. Not every day is going to be the best day of your life. Just like home, you’re going to have good days and bad days. It turns out that you have to study while studying abroad, too, and it can be hard to balance while experiencing so many new things at once. But you learn so much from this, and you come back home a little bit different than before. The best part of my study abroad experience has been this growth that I have realized within myself, and I want to encourage everyone who has the slightest curiosity about going abroad to go. It’s worth it.


Tan pronto que puedo

Name: Jenna Johnston 

Location: San José, Costa Rica

During my last few days in Costa Rica, I found myself repeating the same phrase over and over, to myself and to my friends and family — “Tan pronto que pueda.” I will go back to Costa Rica as soon as I can.

Here are a few of my favorite photos from my last weeks abroad.


I took a trip to Playa Puntarenas with friends from all over the world that I met in my University of Costa Rica classes, celebrating the end of our month of Spanish classes in February.

When traveling with my ICADS ecology course, one of our first stops was the Páramo ecosystem on Cerro de la Muerte. It’s right in the middle of the country, but from some vantage points, you can see the ocean.

My ICADS class took a boat down Río Sixaola, the river between Panamá and Costa Rica, to visit the indigenous Bribri community of Yorkín, which is only accessible by foot or by water.

The ICADS travel course was unexpectedly cut short. One morning in Puerto Viejo, which ended up being one of my last days with ICADS, I woke up to see the sunrise.

More Puerto Viejo gorgeousness, and wishing I didn’t have to leave.

I spent my last week in Costa Rica working in the garden at Casa Adobe. Heidi tells me that the house is now harvesting and eating what I planted back in March. That week, I also managed to spend plenty of time with Don Quixote (nicknamed Quijo), Casa Adobe’s beautiful cat.

A few of my favorite pictures I took of my tico siblings: a trip to a park in San José back in February, playing outside in the backyard, and saying goodbye.

Expectations and Reflections

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

It is impossible to summarize everything that I learned or took away from my experience in Costa Rica in a blog post. Over a month after returning to the States, I’m still untangling this mess of emotions, from gratitude and love for the experiences I had and the people I met, to profound grief for the seven weeks I lost. So far, what’s helped me has been reflecting on some of the little things, from dinner table customs to the treatment of time, which then allow for me to draw greater connections and reflect more deeply about my experiences.

I noticed one difference between my culture and Costa Rican culture during my first meal in the country. Heidi picked me up from the airport and brought me to my host family’s house, and we all ate lunch together. While we were eating, Heidi explained to me that, in Costa Rica, it is respectful to leave your hands on the table while eating. In the United States, it’s rude to do that, so this was the first small behavior that I changed to respect Costa Rican culture. This situation also helped me to pay attention to the subtle differences — hand gestures, table manners, daily practices — that were not as obvious as the dramatic changes in climate and language, but still had an impact on my life.

I found out about another cultural difference before getting to Costa Rica. I have friends who have already studied in Costa Rica, and they told me about the big difference between “gringo time” and “tico time”. They told me that, in Costa Rica, the exact start time of meetings and activities matters less, and there are only a few exceptions to this rule — some classes, medical appointments, some religious services, and train schedules. In Costa Rica, I frequently had to ask Heidi if a class or activity was going to start at “gringo time” (exactly on time) or at “tico time” (a little later). In my culture in the United States, I frequently heard the phrase “early is on time, on time is late.” In my high school, during the school day and in my extracurricular activities like marching band and theatre, there were consequences for students who arrived late. As a result, personally, I try to be punctual, so I don’t inconvenience others. It stresses me out when things don’t start on time. Gradually I learned to relax with respect to time in Costa Rica — it’s not necessary to know exactly when something is going to happen. I hope this new attitude doesn’t cause too many problems for me now that I’m going to have more “gringo time” meetings in the future!

In my semester abroad, I also learned a lot about the religious differences between my part of the United States and my part of Costa Rica, which I’ve talked about extensively in other posts. Out of everything I learned about religion in Costa Rica, the most important thing was not something academic — it was very personal. I had often heard that Catholics in Costa Rica did not accept LGBTQ+ people. However, after a few weeks living with my host family, I told my host parents that I have a girlfriend. I was nervous, but everything was fine. My host family is very Catholic and religious, so I was afraid, but they are very inclusive and love all of their “gringa daughters” (as they affectionately call us), more than anything else. The first question my host mom asked after I told her was “well, what’s your girlfriend like?”, showing me that everything was normal and okay. And afterward, nothing changed between me and my host family — we’re still very close, and we love each other a lot. From all of this, it reinforced for me not to judge or stereotype people based on their religion or culture. Everyone is capable of prioritizing love.

Before I went to Costa Rica, a professor gave me the advice to not have any expectations about my experiences: just to observe, learn, and stay in the moment. Even after taking this advice to heart, I still had some basic expectations about how my semester was going to go — introductory classes, travel course, then internship — and these were not met because I had to leave seven weeks early.

But as much as I can sadly reflect, I can also remember my wonderful memories. The most important thing I took away from my experiences wasn’t from my classes, the trips I took, or the Spanish I learned — it was from my time with my host family. I don’t have younger siblings in my US family, so with my tica family, I learned how to be an older sister. I re-learned how to play, how to relax after a difficult day of classes, and how to appreciate the small moments with my little siblings. I cannot express all that my tica family means to me, but one thing I can take away is to value my time with family and loved ones, and to remember to make time to play and laugh, even in the difficult moments.

In Costa Rica, I learned that I am capable of doing more than I thought I was, in both my classes and in my life. I hope that now, I will listen as well as I can, think more critically, not be afraid to try new things, value my time with my loved ones, stay empathetic, and keep asking questions. Moving forward, I will continue to untangle the web of what I learned, what I can change, and what I can stay curious about.

Religion, Rights, and Marriage Equality in Costa Rica and Cuba

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: San José, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

On the surface, Costa Rica is doing well when it comes to the rights of LGBTQ+ people. There are some non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in areas like work and commerce, and marriage equality will be legalized in May. At the same time as these political advances, Costa Rica remains a Catholic country: legally as the state religion, and popularly as the religious identity of three-fourths of the population. These seemingly contradictory realities have complex roots and results in the fields of politics, Christianity, and history, as well as implications for the lives of individuals.

To gain a more personal perspective on the interrelatedness of LGBTQ+ rights, identity, and Christianity in Latin America, I conducted an interview with Alex*, an ordained Lutheran pastor who has lived in Costa Rica for twelve years. Alex is also gay and was born and raised in Cuba. As such, he has unique insight into the connections between LGBTQ+ rights, Christianity, and politics in Latin America. I interviewed Alex and researched to learn about the history of LGBTQ+ rights and marriage equality in Costa Rica and Cuba. I spoke with Alex about his experience growing up and working in the church throughout his life, and his personal experience with the interactions between Christianity and LGBTQ+ identity in both countries.

According to recent studies, 92% of Costa Ricans identify as Christian, including 76% Catholic (Velzer 2015). There is no available data about the percentage of the population who identifies as LGBTQ+. The first Roman Catholic missionary came to present-day Costa Rica in 1522, and shortly after, the Spanish colony was officially established in 1524 (Holland 2002). After colonization, Roman Catholic ideology was pushed onto indigenous peoples in Central America. It is difficult to know much about how Indigenous cultures in Costa Rica historically treated LGBTQ+ people, because the surviving narratives are almost entirely from the perspectives of colonizers, but there is some evidence of wider acceptance and normalization of diverse sexualities and gender identities in indigenous Latin America (Fernandez 2004b). Same-sex sexual activity was punishable by death until 1575, when the Spanish crown decided that indigenous people should not be judged by the Inquisition in the same way as Spaniards “because they were new to the Faith and, thus, they were not gente de razón [people capable of reasoning]” (Fernandez 2004b). Homosexuality was viewed as a “nefarious sin”, and after independence in 1821, it remained politically punishable until its decriminalization in the 1870s under the liberal president Tomás Guardia (Fernandez 2004a).

Wider social acceptance in Costa Rica followed trends in Western societies that began in the 1960s and 70s (Fernandez 2004a), and remaining laws that criminalized “scandalous sodomy”, which was not well defined and was rarely used as a charge in court, were repealed in 2002 (ILGA 2009). Since the election of President Carlos Alvarado Quesada in 2018, LGBTQ rights in Costa Rica have continued to improve. The issue of same-sex marriage was a major issue in the 2018 election, and after winning by a landslide, Alvarado has led Costa Rica to give people the right to change their legal gender, and has promoted the acceptance of the ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to legalize same-sex marriage and adoption by June 2020 (Henley 2018).

From a legal perspective, the rights of LGBTQ people today look similar in Costa Rica and Cuba — both are pending or awaiting legalization of same-sex marriage (Paz Martín 2018), and both recently legalized official gender changes (Kirk and Huish 2018). However, Costa Rica and Cuba have vastly different histories around LGBTQ issues. The Cuban government blatantly persecuted LGBTQ+ people as recently as the 1960s, when men who were suspected to be homosexual were incarcerated in labor camps (Arguelles and Rich 1984). Yet today, Cuba is considered one of the most socially accepting countries of LGBTQ+ people in Latin America and the Caribbean (Smith 2018). This is likely related to the fact that Cuba’s Communist government is not associated with Catholicism, and Cuba’s population is much less Christian than Costa Rica’s: one-fourth of the population identifies as non-religious, and while 60% of the population identifies as Catholic, less than 5% of that group attend mass regularly (WOLA 2012). Cuba’s complex sociopolitical and religious history cannot be explored within the context of this story, so the focus will remain on Cuba’s recent history, which relates most closely with Alex’s life experiences.

Alex said his childhood in Cuba was different from most Latin Americans’ childhoods because Cuba is a communist country: education and healthcare are relatively good, but freedom and human rights are more complicated. Alex grew up in and was always connected to the church, which was unusual for Cubans. He wasn’t open about his sexuality while living in Cuba, because of general sentiments about LGBTQ+ people, and especially after he was ordained as a pastor in the Presbyterian church. He knew some LGBTQ+ people who were out in their lives and to their church communities. However, these people did not typically feel comfortable enough to display public affection with their partners, to talk about their identities openly, or to seek church leadership or ordination. In general, according to Alex, LGBTQ+ people in the Presbyterian church in Cuba lived a life of “toleration in silence.”

Alex drew comparisons between the culture of his Presbyterian church in Cuba and mainstream Costa Rican Catholic culture when he moved there. Most Costa Ricans knew that LGBTQ+ people existed, but they misunderstood the topic and didn’t want to talk or think about it. People would quietly disagree, but avoid direct confrontation. Alex became a Lutheran pastor in Costa Rica, and found an accepting, open community that contrasted his experience in the Presbyterian church in Cuba. In the Lutheran church, Alex could be out as gay and work as a pastor, which he had never thought would be possible. He was welcomed in a community based on inclusion and social change and was able to have a “reencounter” with theology and sexuality. Many people with different histories of being excluded from the church came to his church, which helped Alex realize how important acceptance and inclusion are. Compared to the millions of Costa Rican Catholics, only a few thousand Costa Ricans identify as Lutheran (Bartlett 2008). Alex believes that now is the time for a “moment of integration and acceptance” in wider Costa Rican Christianity and culture.

The recent marriage equality debate in Costa Rica has been complex and polarizing in Costa Rica, which is frustrating for Alex, but will hopefully be resolved when marriage equality is legalized in late -May. The issue arose most recently in 2015, when due to an error with government identification paperwork, two women, Laura Flórez-Estrada and Jazmín Elizondo, got legally married. The couple, as well as those who participated in the official ceremony, were accused by the state of “ideological falsehood to the detriment of the family” (Madrigal 2019). This lawsuit led to the 2018 decisions by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights and Costa Rica’s Sala Constitucional, which stated that prohibiting same-sex marriage was unconstitutional and should be legalized in the next 18 months (Rico 2019). Alex described being frustrated with the public discourse around these issues. He said that it led to radicalization: moderate Christians who previously had no opinion on marriage equality were led by politicians and media to adopt increasingly hateful positions. However, he was grateful that Alvarado Quesada, the pro-marriage equality candidate, won the presidential election in 2018, and hoped that after legalization in May, the issue will turn back into something that can be discussed on the individual human level, instead of on overwhelming political scales.

In Cuba, Alex is less personally impacted by debates about marriage equality, but still is invested in how the issue is changing and progressing. Political forces in Cuba work differently because of the one-party system: Alex was very clear to express that no one in Cuba has political power outside of the government party. However, he said the Church still has influence over political decisions, as evidenced by the changing discussion around marriage equality about a year ago. While drafting a new Constitution in 2018, the Party decided to legalize marriage equality. Alex thinks this was because the Party wanted to placate and stay on the side of Western foreigners, presenting an image of Cuba as a place with democracy and progressivism. However, due to fear of the church’s response, they changed their minds and removed the accepting language from the draft of the Constitution, saying they may put it into the draft of the new Family Code instead (Paz Martín 2018). Alex was hopeful that the rights of LGBTQ+ people will continue to improve in Cuba but recognizes that the complex interactions between the Party and the Church make predicting or influencing change difficult.

The relationship between history, Christianity, LGBTQ+ identity, and politics has its own manifestations and complexities in every country. There is a tendency in some areas of the “developed” world to either wholeheartedly celebrate or completely dismiss countries in Latin America as progressive or not, accepting or not. However, the truth in many Latin American countries, such as Cuba and Costa Rica, is much more complicated. Histories of colonialism, Catholic influence, polarization, and reform have led to confusing realities and seeming contradictions between law, public opinion, and everyday life. Adding a personal perspective to historical context facilitates a more complex, complete understanding of LGBTQ+ and Christian issues.


*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here:

Venezuelan Refugees in Costa Rica: Political Background and Personal Narrative

Name: Jenna Johnston

Location: Santa Rosa, Costa Rica

Since my time in Costa Rica was cut short, for 3 of my 5 remaining blogs, I’m publishing stories based around the academic research and personal interviews I conducted for my Central American history class.

It is impactful enough to look at Costa Rica’s immigration situation from a demographic and statistical perspective. As of 2014, immigrants made up 9 percent of Costa Rica’s population, the largest percentage of any Latin American country (Arias 2014). Most immigrants in Costa Rica are from Nicaragua, with other significant portions from Panama, the United States, El Salvador, and Venezuela (Migration For Development 2018). Yet behind these numbers, every immigrant in Costa Rica has a story. To understand the refugee situation in Costa Rica and political violence in Venezuela from a personal perspective, I interviewed María* about being a refugee from Venezuela in Costa Rica. We discussed her reasons for leaving, her experience with the immigration system, and her personal dreams for the future.

During the presidencies of Hugo Chavez (from 1999 to 2013) and Nicolás Maduro (from 2013 until now), political repression and economic crisis have been the norm in Venezuela, worsening in the past several years. Hyperinflation, election fraud, shortages of important goods, and persecution of political opposition are just some of the problems Venezuelans have faced since 1999 (Human Rights Watch 2018). After Maduro was reelected in in 2018, Juan Guiadó, a political opposition leader, also declared himself president. Guiadó was formally recognized by many other governments, including the United States. However, most of the military and police forces in Venezuela still back Maduro, so he functionally has presidential power (BBC 2020). Since 2014, approximately 4.8 million Venezuelans have fled the country (BBC 2020). María and her family were among these refugees fleeing Venezuela in 2018.

Unlike other refugees who fled due to generally worsening economic and political circumstances, María and her family left because of a specific event: the assassination of her only brother during the El Junquito massacre of January 15, 2018. The massacre was an official attempt by the Venezuelan government to kill Óscar Pérez, leader of an opposition movement. In a mission called Operación Gedeón, five hundred troops were sent early in the morning to one house in El Junquito where Pérez and some companions were staying (Bellingcat 2018). Pérez and six of his supporters, including María’s brother, were killed, and others were arrested (Romero-Castillo 2018).

Not only was María’s family coping with their own grief, but the massacre made international news, and it was difficult for the families of the dead to get their loved ones’ bodies back from the government. Many of the other involved families also left the country. In María’s case, all three of her sisters and her mom left Venezuela — her mom left first, going to Peru just a few weeks after the massacre, while the rest of her extended family is now scattered elsewhere. During the months following her brother’s assassination, María and her family kept a very low profile. Her family suffered emotional and psychological pain, living in fear and under indirect and direct threats from the government. After several months of planning, María, her husband, and her two young children arrived in Costa Rica on August 3, 2018, a little over one and a half years ago.

Since 1950, Costa Rica’s government has remained stable. As a result, Costa Rica has a growing immigrant and refugee population, especially since crises in Venezuela and Nicaragua have escalated in the last two years. Among all the immigrants in Costa Rica, 100,000 (2% of the country’s population) are asylum seekers like María’s family (UNHCR Global Focus 2020). As of June 2019, Costa Rica hosted 28,870 Venezuelan refugees, including 16,236 asylum seekers and 5,692 people with residency or regular stay permits (UNHCR 2020a). According to Former President Chinchilla, “We are, in our hemisphere, the country that has received the second-highest migrant population, after the United States. We estimate that by the end of this year [2019] we will have about 100,000 Nicaraguans and 30,000 Venezuelans living with us” (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

María’s immigration experiences reflect the problems that have arisen from the surge in asylum seekers over the last few years. María and her family arrived just after the situation in Nicaragua worsened in April 2018. By August, the immigration system was overcrowded, understaffed, and slow. Increasing difficulties with the immigration system has led Costa Rica to ask for international assistance for dealing with the refugee crisis (Agence France-Presse 2019b). At the same time, the United Nations asked the country to expedite their processing of asylum requests for the sake of refugees and to combat rising xenophobia since 2018 (Agence France-Presse 2019a).

According to the UNHCR (or ACNUR in Spanish-speaking countries), there are several steps one must take to apply for refugee status in Costa Rica. After three months of residence in Costa Rica, asylum seekers can apply for a work permit, which takes several more months to process. Later, there is an interview with immigration authorities, and finally a waiting period to see whether the request for refugee status was approved or denied (UNHCR 2020b).

María talked about this process, and said it was frustrating because of how long each step has taken. Her family delayed leaving Venezuela in the first place to could get passports and other documents in order. Upon arrival in Costa Rica, her family received temporary documents that said they were seeking asylum, but this uncommon form of identification was confusing to potential employers and local authorities. Her husband had to wait many months to apply for a work permit, leaving them to rely on the generosity of family, friends, and social services to survive. Her family finally had their refugee application interview in January 2019. Several organizations, including ACNUR, HIAS, and RET, have provided her family with legal, social, and psychological support. At the time of this interview, in late January 2020, her family had still not heard anything about their application. Lawyers and immigration authorities have told them “tranquila,” that it could take years. While her husband has been able to work, it is generally harder to get jobs, and their family cannot leave the country. María said she would have liked to be able to visit her family in the United States and Peru, but she cannot until her refugee status is processed, so she feels a bit stuck. Many other refugees also share her frustration, as evidenced by the protests in Costa Rica led by Nicaraguan immigrants in 2018 and 2019 (Agence France-Presse 2019b).

While our interview focused on María’s reasons for leaving Venezuela and her immigration process in Costa Rica, her life is much more than her legal status and political history. She has two young children that keep her life “busy and crazy, but never boring.” She misses a lot from her home country, including her city, Caracas, and the warmer climate, but most of all “la gente”, the people. María has plenty of dreams and hopes for her future once her kids get older and she has more free time. While she has studied and worked in administration, she has a wide variety of interests in vocal music, theology, social services, and women’s issues. She would love to study theology and become a religious leader, life coach, or nonprofit worker. María views her difficult life experiences as a way to connect with others, particularly women, who have experienced harm, and guide them toward finding their vocation. Venezuela’s political crisis and Costa Rica’s immigration issues are striking enough while looking at the facts and statistics over time. When a personal perspective is brought in, it shines an even brighter light on how compassion and empathy are essential to building effective immigration systems and policies today.


*Name changed to protect privacy.

References cited in this story can be viewed here:

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