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From comfort zone into learning

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From comfort zone into learning

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October 14, 2012

UGA student Chandler Fortson, a senior from Jackson majoring in early childhood education, was looking for a study abroad course that would benefit her future career. 

"There are not many that are relevant to my major, and as soon as I read the description of the Language and Culture Service-Learning course at UGA Costa Rica, I knew it was just what I was looking for," said Fortson, who is considering becoming an ESOL or English for Speakers of Other Languages teacher. "I am taking three additional classes to get my ESOL endorsement to broaden my teaching scope and cultivate my interest and belief in providing an education that is compatible to each individual student."

Now, in its seventh year, the month-long course runs from early July-August and is open to both undergraduate and graduate students. During that month, the students explore through reflections, discussions and theoretical readings the nexus between language and culture and the issues involved in teaching ESOL, according to Paula Mellom, program director and research scientist in the College of Education's Center for Latino Achievement and Success in Education.

Most of the course is based at the UGA Costa Rica campus in San Luis de Monteverde, but participants also spend a week in Turrialba in the Atlantic zone-where Mellom lived for a decade-before finishing out the trip in the Pacific town of Playa Samara, one of Costa Rica's coastal jewels in the Guanacaste region, according to Mellom.

As part of the service-learning component, the UGA students apply what they are learning in a week-long "English Camp" for local elementary school children. The students develop interactive lessons that integrate the national science curriculum and apply strategies for teaching English to non-native speakers.

In addition to their classwork, students work with local farmers and a women's cooperative based in the nearby town of Monteverde. They also live with a local family for a week.

"The program provided me with the means to truly step out of my comfort zone whether it was zip-lining through the rainforest and whitewater rafting in the Pacuare River or living with an unknown Spanish-speaking family for a week," said Fortson, who decided to study early childhood education during her senior year in high school.

"My stay with a local family in Monteverde for a week was what made me the most nervous about my time in Costa Rica initially. I had no idea what to expect and because of this, I worried until I stepped out of the taxi and saw my home-stay father's and brother's smiling faces," said Fortson.

The part of the trip that was the most worrisome turned out to be the experience that had the greatest impact on her views. It was difficult communicating at times because her Spanish was not great. Mellom had asked the family to speak to Fortson only in Spanish.

"I would have never guessed that I'd wake up one night only to realize in confusion that I had been dreaming in Spanish and was now thinking in Spanish even after waking up from my dream," said Fortson. "I gained my own family in Costa Rica. I was able to truly experience the language and culture of Costa Rica and gain even more respect for the differences and similarities of cultures other than my own."

Fortson, who completed two semesters of practicum in two different Clarke County elementary schools this past year, will complete her student teaching through the Consortium for Overseas Student Teaching program this fall in Quito, Ecuador.

Fortson will graduate this December, but beyond that she's unsure of her career path. She is planning to attend graduate school in some aspect of education. 

One thing she is sure of is that she will be well-prepared for the challenges she may face as an educator.

"The Early Childhood Education program at UGA has given me an awareness of the many everyday issues in our school systems," she said. "And the experiences of Costa Rica will allow me to teach and observe with more of an ethnographic perspective-truly being able to understand that each and every student comes from a different background and to be accepting of this."

This program is one of many at UGA's Costa Rica campus. During the past year, almost 400 students, faculty and teaching assistants participated in UGA's Costa Rica abroad program, and more than 1,800 stayed on the campus.