by Greg Orwig, '91
Less than an hour's bus ride out of Costa Rica's bustling capital city of San José, up a scenic mountain road to the edge of a rainforest teeming with plants and animals lie Whitworth's newest classroom building and residence hall.
With October's unanimous approval of the board of trustees, Whitworth is set to establish its first international study center, in Costa Rica. Up to 30 students will begin taking classes there in the fall, advancing the university's long-term goal of increasing cross-cultural learning opportunities for students while also adding affordable capacity for anticipated enrollment growth.
|Photo by Greg Orwig, '91
Dense second-generation rain forest covers the northern edge of the property.
"After a long search, we believe we've found a site that is ideal for providing students the life-changing cross-cultural experience afforded by international study," says Michael Le Roy, '89, vice president for academic affairs and dean of the faculty. "Through our Costa Rica program, students will see first-hand that problems such as poverty and environmental degradation are inextricably linked to social context. These connections are much clearer when students have the opportunity to immerse themselves in a culture and to cultivate a broader understanding of what it means to love one's neighbor and follow Christ."
The Costa Rica site includes two buildings that need some work but are structurally sound and are well-suited for the university's needs. The 27-acre property also features broad lawns where one can easily imagine Whitworth students introducing Ultimate Frisbee to Central America; a spring-fed stream that spills into two ponds; and, along a perimeter edge, a second-generation rainforest.
The main building, formerly a French restaurant frequented by Latin American heads of state and celebrities, includes space for two or three classrooms, food service, student lounge and study areas, and an attached apartment for Whitworth's on-site director. The adjacent hotel building can accommodate up to 30 students when they're not in home stays with Costa Rican families or traveling to cloud forests, service-learning engagements and other off-site activities.
Just to the north of the property is Costa Rica's renowned Braulio Carrillo National Park, with dense virgin cloudforest that is home to more than 500 bird species and 150 different mammals. The 9,534-foot inactive Barva Volcano is also nearby.
A short bus ride to the southwest is the city of Heredia, with a population of about 110,000 and the main campus of Costa Rica's largest university. The university hosts hundreds of international exchange students from around the world every year; arrangements can be made for Whitworth students to take credit or non-credit courses on site.
Building on Whitworth's 30-plus years of experience leading study programs in Central America, the Costa Rica center initially will offer courses that meet general education requirements, including Spanish language at various levels; Latin American history, politics or theology; ecology or environmental science; and Core 350 – the capstone course in Whitworth's worldview studies program, in which students explore how biblical virtues such as justice, mercy and equity are reflected in the ethics and politics of contemporary Western culture.
The site also will be used for a special Jan Term program offered to freshman students admitted with honors, for intensive language training for participants in the Central America Study Program, and for other major-specific programs still in the planning stages. Le Roy says that Whitworth's long-term plans call for possible international centers in Africa, East Asia and Europe, with continued development of faculty expertise, on-the-ground experience, and student demand in those regions.
|Photo by Jeffrey Arguedas
Vice President for Academic Affairs Michael Le Roy (middle) and Director of Capital Projects Steve Thompson (right) discuss renovations to the classroom building with Costa Rican architect Daniel Sancho during an October visit to the property.
Regardless of the location or course of study, the educational benefits of international study are clear and profound, according to Associate Professor of Modern Languages Bendi Benson Schrambach, who has participated in faculty efforts to expand Whitworth's international study programs. She recently published an article in the Journal of Christianity and Foreign Language that documents the positive outcomes of study abroad for undergraduate students.
The article notes that the 2007 National Survey of Student Engagement – including responses from 313,000 students at 610
colleges and universities nationwide, including Whitworth – offered "compelling evidence" that study abroad boosts student performance across a variety of desired educational outcomes. Moreover, Schrambach notes, the benefits of study abroad are long-lasting, according to a study by the Institute for the International Education of Students.
"Living and studying away from all that is familiar, all that has defined them – such as language, family and community – forces students, in a sense, to define themselves," says Schrambach. "Their convictions and ideologies are challenged and refined. They return strengthened and humbled through the experience, better knowing themselves and what is important to them. I am thrilled that Whitworth is opening a center in Costa Rica. The fact that it will offer general education courses will encourage many Whitworth students who might not otherwise consider spending a semester abroad to do so."