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The trip was organized by Bret Harte High School Spanish teachers Alex Kunesh and David Brady in conjunction with local AEC coordinator Jeff Garrison, a Murphys resident. Attendees paid their own way or raised funds on their own to make the trip.

“The cost was about $1,460, but it kind of grew once we got there,” Kunesh said. “They were offered to go to the beach for a day, and it was like 60 bucks for a chartered bus to the beach, which is three hours away and a tour of the sloth sanctuary. The fee didn’t include all their lunches, and they paid for pictures from a couple of events and tips. Next time we’ll include all of that so they know when they budget from the start that the cost is pretty much solid at $1,500.”

“We attended class from about 8 a.m. until 2:30 p.m., all in Spanish. It was language, language, language all day long with about a 20-minute bathroom break,” said junior Tanner Stone. “Living with a host family and living in a city where I had to use the language daily really helped me. As the week went on, I understood more. It was a great test for me to see if I want to study abroad in the future.”

“I studied in the same town, in the same school program and at the same time in my senior year. Being with a host family, I think it’s ironically similar,” Kunesh observed. “The school was in a kind of beat up building in the center of the city. This time, they’ve moved to an adventure company’s property. The classrooms are very much in an outdoor setting now with bamboo walls and toucans out the window. That is unique in comparison to the last time I was here.”

“It’s really neat to see the seeds that were planted for Alex (Kunesh) come to fruition and see what she’s passing on to her students,” said Brady of his former student, now a colleague. “I think it was a turning point for her for international travel, and it’s taken her on a trajectory that led to where she is now.”

“Frankly, I think a week or 10 days can be a very intense turning point for students at this level,” she said. “It’s a cultural immersion experience and language is woven into that. So it’s not one or the other; they coexist. The classes are probably not where students learn the most. It’s a cultural experience and language is embedded in the connections that you make through the cultural experience. The benefit from a trip like this is something that comes in waves. In the next few months or in the next year or so, or when we talk to students years from now and see what they’re doing in the future, that’s where I think we’ll see the most profound benefit.”

Surrounded by the verdant landscape and brightly colored birds outside the classroom, the 2018 crop of students spent five hours a day in class studying Spanish in small learning groups consisting of four to five people of similar skill levels. And while time in the classroom was important, the trip was about much more than conjugating verbs and stringing together sentences in Spanish.

“I’ve definitely become more comfortable with being out of my comfort zone,” said Brady. “I know that’s oxymoronic, but I remember last year (in Spain) feeling awkward and not fitting in because of the language barrier. Communication is what brings people together. You can travel all over, but if you can’t communicate, you can’t connect. My classes in Costa Rica allowed me to grow, and seeing the growth is really cool.”

“They were electing their president while we were there, and the night we left the election results came back. We were sitting on the balcony eating ice cream when we heard car horns honking and saw flags waving for Carlos Alvarado, the winner,” added Brady. “It was cool. We got to go with our hosts to vote earlier and see how it’s done here. It was so easy and simple and there is so much patriotism.”

In addition to the election, their time in Costa Rica coincided with Semana Santa, also known as Holy Week, and included the opportunity to both observe and share in the customs of the holiday. For senior Mary Soria, it was a profound personal experience.

“Going on the trip was a very religious-based decision for me,” Soria said. “When I was told that the trip would take place in one of the most Catholic countries in the world during Holy Week, the week preceding Easter, I knew that I had to go. Being able to see the same faith, religion and belief that I had practiced since I was a little girl was definitely the most impactful experience I had. The word ‘Catholic’ means universal: we practice the same faith, religion and beliefs everywhere in the world. Being able to witness that for myself was an incredible experience, and it has made me want to not only stay even truer to my faith, but also to travel the world more, on missions or just as a traveler.”

“They came away with practical life skills. They know what a customs form is and what to do with it,” said Kunesh. “The students came from different walks of life, but by the end of the trip, they bonded together and supported one another. I am absolutely happy with how the trip went.”

“The goal is to spark an interest for kids to get out and see the world beyond Calaveras County,” Brady explained. “It’s so important – whether they go through the military, vocational school or taking a gap year – seeing the bigger world and understanding that though we have different culture and different language, there is so much we have in common and to learn to appreciate and accept diversity. Language plays a vital role in this; it is a means to a greater end.”