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Service in Costa Rican fishing village shapes students' thinking, future plans

As Lindsey Merchlewitz made her way via ferries and buses to a small fishing village along the western coast of Costa Rica she knew the next couple of weeks would be exhausting and more than a little uncomfortable.

Merchlewitz, along with 19 other University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students, were heading to Cabuya, a small, poor coastal town where they would help the locals with projects that were important to their community.

"We'd all heard about how hot it was going to be, how many bugs there were and all of the hard work we'd be doing under the blazing sun," said Merchlewitz, a communication sciences and disorders major from Rushford, Minn. "I worried about being able to understand my new host family. I expected to be sweaty and warm every second of every day. I expected the geckos and the tarantulas, scorpions and ants. I also expected to be tired after working each day. All these turned out to be realities in Cabuya.

"But what I did not expect was how much all of these things would come together to make this experience one of the best that I have ever had. It never crossed my mind that the short time I spent in Cabuya might change how I see the world for the rest of my life."

Among the many surprises, Merchlewitz said, was bonding with her host mother in just a matter of days. Teaching English to her host family's young girls was more rewarding than she would have thought possible. And helping a community learn to work together to make their village stronger was incredibly powerful, she said.

"It's hard to believe how much I have learned about myself from my experience in Cabuya," Merchlewitz said. "Sure, I didn't like all the bugs and the geckos that were crawling around, but I learned that I can be tough and control my fear. I also learned that seeing the smile on a child's face after learning a new word in another language is one of my favorite things. I was taught that by working and showing people that I care about making things better, I can inspire them to do the same. "

Merchlewitz and the other UW-Eau Claire students who joined her in Cabuya were studying abroad in the Costa Rican town of San Isidro. As part of the program, the students complete service projects in a local community, giving them opportunities to immerse themselves in a new culture while improving their Spanish language skills.

In Cabuya, the students worked on a variety of community projects, including rebuilding a concrete multiuse sports field, updating a building used to prepare and sell fish, and painting the community center. They also helped collect trash along the nearby beach and did other work to enhance the village.

Cultural and language differences often made completing the projects more challenging than they'd expected, several students said. But overcoming those challenges made the experience even more satisfying, they said.

"When we were working at the multipurpose court, there was a lot of standing around and a lot of doing random things that seemed unnecessary," said Grace Park, an education major from Madison. "They were experimenting as we went to get the right outcome. I've always had set, organized projects with specific rules and specific deadlines so it was very different. But I liked learning a different way of working and a different way of experiencing construction."

Park said she also found it interesting to see how differently the men and women of Cabuya went about their work. It was intriguing, she said, to see how powerful and influential the women were in the fishing village.

"The women of Cabuya were in charge of the fish house project, and I saw a difference of pace than with the men who were working on the sports field project," Park said. "The women had us on tighter schedules and had specific rules and ideas planned out before we arrived in Cabuya. The entire fish house was painted in about half the time we were in Cabuya. When we left Cabuya the court was still not finished."

The students initially were disappointed that they didn't complete the sports field before they had to leave, Park said. But when they later learned that the Cabuya community came together to finish it after the student volunteers were gone, they realized that they had accomplished something more important than laying fresh concrete, she said. Helping the people of Cabuya to understand what they can do if they work together will have a greater long-term impact on the village than having the new sports field, she said.

"We learned what it is to work for a cause that is sustainable," Merchlewitz said. "It was amazing to see how people from the community slowly began to stand up and work with us on the projects. The best part about this whole experience is that because we inspired the people in the community to work together, we can hope to see more progress there in the future."

Her experiences in Cabuya were so powerful that she is rethinking her future, Merchlewitz said.

"It's not enough for me anymore to learn about the things that people accomplish in the world through books or on the news," Merchlewitz said. "Now I want to be a part of it. Volunteering isn't just a civic duty but something I enjoy very much. I had never thought about joining the Peace Corps, but working in Cabuya has made me realize that I would love to be a part of a group that's focused on social change."