Menlo Abroad Returns After Two-Year Hiatus
April 5, 2023
This summer, 16 select Menlo students will have the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica as part of the Menlo Abroad program, a three-week immersive travel program to the Global South that emphasizes building relationships through homestay and community engagement. The program was temporarily suspended for two and a half years due to COVID-19, but will make its return with a trip to Costa Rica in 2023.
On May 22, 2023, Menlo students will land in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, before traveling to Chilamaté, where they will engage in both leisurely activities and community service. Students will visit the city of San Ramon before their two-week homestay in Linda Vista, where they will eat meals and stay overnight with a local Costa Rican family.
A Board of Trustees subcommittee with the goal of enhancing Menlo’s global education created the Menlo Abroad program in 2013. Through Menlo Abroad, students have been able to travel to Guatemala, India, Tanzania and China. In spring 2020, Menlo Abroad was planning on visiting Senegal before the pandemic and Menlo’s transition to online learning. Global Programs Director Peter Brown proposed the Borderlands Program as an alternative to Menlo Abroad after COVID-19, which consists of three opportunities for one-week domestic travel in the Southwest. Continued student interest prompted Brown to extend the program for at least another year.
Not only did the pandemic temporarily suspend Menlo’s Global Travel Programs, but it also had damaging effects on the local communities of these destinations. “A lot of the communities that we were visiting, say communities in Guatemala, were devastated by COVID,” Peter Brown said. “So, in many cases, we’ve had to look for other programs.”
Originally, Menlo Abroad took place during the summer instead of during MTerm. Although Peter Brown received an excess of applications for Menlo Abroad Costa Rica and was forced to put many students on the waitlist, he acknowledges that this wasn’t always the case. “There is a lot of demand for Menlo Abroad, and that wasn’t so much to be at the beginning,” Peter Brown said. “I think the culture has changed a little bit.”
Lucia Brown, an English teacher in Costa Rica, will use her knowledge of the country to help guide students during the trip. While she has traveled to several European and Latin American countries, nothing compares to Costa Rica. “Costa Rica is the most beautiful country that I’ve ever visited,” Lucia Brown said. “I’ve been to countries in Europe. I’ve been to several other countries in Latin America. I mean, I’ve traveled around the US, and no country is as green as Costa Rica.”
Peter Brown, Carunchia and Lucia Brown visited Costa Rica in advance to scout several programs. They met with various organizations and created an itinerary for the trip. Even though students will lack many of the accommodations that they are used to, Peter Brown looks for programs that are safe and suitable for students on a basic level. He also looks for a homestay where students will be well taken care of. “We want [families] to be really excited about the possibility of hosting,” Peter Brown said.
Lucia Brown notes that Menlo Abroad is a unique experience unlike the ones students may take with their families. For the majority of the trip, students will be in a small community with little tourism, even though Costa Rica has been experiencing a great deal of tourism in recent years. “On the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, it’s a lot of big hotels and big resorts,” Lucia Brown said. “And I think if you just stay in, for example, an all-inclusive resort in Costa Rica, you don’t really get the full experience of what people’s day-to-day lives are really like here.”
Applicant and future attendee junior Julia Lau adds that she has never visited rural areas when traveling. “When I’m traveling, I never get to visit the local areas, because we’re always in hotels or commercial areas,” Lau said.
Despite a hiatus due to the pandemic, the program in Costa Rica will still have the two main components at the heart of every Menlo Abroad program: community engagement activities and the two-week homestay. Students will have the opportunity to choose from three different work sites: an organic farm, a collective in San Ramon National Park, and an elementary school in Chilamaté.
Students interested in learning about the process and challenges of organic farming can listen to the unique story of a farmer in Costa Rica. “Costa Rica has an eco-friendly, public image,” Peter Brown said. “But [the owner of the farm] had a very much different experience living in Costa Rica [organic farming].”
In addition, the construction of a national park in San Ramon, a relatively small and traditional town, will bring high levels of business and tourism to the area. The people of San Ramon want to learn how to interact with Westerners and benefit from the tourist trade while continuing to maintain their culture. Students have the option to work with a collective to help facilitate these interactions with tourists. A collective is a non-profit organization where members of the community share resources for mutual benefit. Students will also have the opportunity to meet and interact with children in the Chilamaté Elementary School.
Although the trip is centered around community engagement in rural areas, students will immerse themselves in the nature of Costa Rica through a waterfall hike and visits to the hot springs, cloud forest and the beach.
However, before Peter Brown finalized the trip, he selected teachers – who he refers to as trip leaders – to accompany students on the trip. Spanish teacher Justin Carunchia will chaperone students on the Menlo Abroad trip.
Carunchia isn’t unfamiliar with global travel, having lived in Mexico and Honduras for two years each. “[Menlo Abroad] is a great way to promote the Spanish language and Central American culture, which is important to me,” Carunchia said.
Carunchia is tasked with making house visits every night, resolving conflicts between host families and students and acting as a trusted adult that students can rely on from Menlo. However, he also hopes to form deeper connections with the students on the trip and grow from the program himself. “I’m there to learn alongside [the students], to have a fun time, and more importantly, to get to know a wider variety of Menlo kids outside of the Spanish department, outside of GSA [Gender Sexuality Alliance], and outside of beekeeping club,” Carunchia said.
Costa Rica is the first Menlo Abroad program an alumnus will attend. Ella Marks (‘21) participated in the 2018 Menlo Abroad program in Guatemala and is currently a sophomore at Boston University. Her experiences in Guatemala inspired her to return to Menlo Abroad, but this time as a mentor.
Menlo Abroad offers the opportunity for students to get out of their comfort zone and the bubble of Silicon Valley. Students won’t have access to their phones and will be disconnected from their daily life at home, live with families of humble origins during the homestay and not have the comforts students often take for granted.
Peter Brown believes that Menlo Abroad is a transformative experience for many students. “It’s one thing to study [others’ culture] and maybe read about it, but it’s another thing to live it,” Peter Brown said. “We really want [students] to be living immersed in an experience, and that’s where the real magic happens.”