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The ACE program in Costa Rica changed my perspective like no other. When my plane touched down in San Jose, and I stepped onto Costa Rican soil for the first time, I had no idea what to expect in the weeks ahead. Tropical weather, fresh coconut water, and lots of rice and beans? Well, perhaps. But never could I have imagined that nestled deep into the Costa Rican rainforest, in the small village town of Gandoca, I would find a community that would welcome us into their home like part of their family.

During our stay in Gandoca, our community partner hosts shared with us the beauty of their culture, language, and country. In no time, we were immersed in a variety of local activities. We cooked and wrapped our own tamales, learned the Costa Rican “pachuco” or slang, and frequented the local soccer pitch, where we took part in a local soccer competition to raise money for the local school.

More than anything, I am eternally grateful for the incredible people that were part of this program alongside me. The twelve of us Stanford and Duke student-athletes became like a family. Whether it was waking up in the early morning to the cries of the howler monkeys, playing cultural games on the soccer field in the pouring rain, or watching the baby sea turtles dauntlessly make their way into the ocean—I will always cherish the memories we shared together.

When I look back on my program experience years from now, here are a few things I want to

  • Walking along the beach for our sea turtle night patrol, guided through the pitch black of the night solely by the twinkling stars above and the luminescent algae sprinkled on the ocean shore.
  • Tasting the cacao beans straight from the cacao trees, and then grinding the roasted beans into homemade chocolate.
  • Illiana, one of our cooks, who shared with me stories about her family, taught me about the “yerba buena” herb she uses in dishes and in fresh juices, and who blew us all away with her impressive soccer skills.
  • Our family meals—sharing stories and jokes about everything and anything, eating the delicious empanadas, and savoring the seemingly endless mixtures of fresh juices (the starfruit juice was a fan favorite).
  • Visiting the organic sustainable farm and learning about all the crops and produce grown on the land, with a special house for growing mushrooms.
  • The smiles and joy on the faces of the young local children, who held our hands as we sat watching the soccer game and conversed with us in Spanish.

The Costa Rican people live by the saying, “Pura vida,” which literally translates to “pure life.” Their culture values the beauty of life. Happiness needn’t come from material things, but rather meaningful connections, family, and community. I am so grateful to have been part of the first ACE in Costa Rica program. I will take all these experiences with me moving forward and will forever treasure the friendships I made

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