UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School


Pura vida: A truly local experience in Costa Rica

Ellen Lesser

We’ve all heard the old adage “Do as the locals do” before embarking on a trip, something which might be difficult to accomplish when visiting a foreign country amidst the cumbersome maps and hefty travel guides, not to mention the existence of language barriers and cultural nuances.

The Working Languages program and immersion offered by UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School allows students to really experience life in a different country from the vantage point of a native.

The class offers an overview of Spanish grammar, vocabulary, and culture through a business lens, all in preparation for a week-long trip to the city of Heredia, right outside Costa Rica’s capital of San José. Heredia is a small town, where almost everything is within walking distance, a far cry from the typical site of tourist attractions, and the perfect place to experience “real living,” or as they say in Costa Rica, Pura Vida.

Homestay families provide students with food and lodging, and many of them speak very little English, providing an authentic experience inclusive of rich meals and the ability to practice language and communication skills. Students attend daily Spanish classes at the Intercultura language school, where they discover more about the culture as well as the language through a dancing and a cooking class. There is also a night trip to a Costa Rican discoteca with the teacher, where dancing skills can really be put to the test.

Students receive the opportunity to visit businesses, ranging from INCAE, the nearby institute of business administration, to Coopesa, a company that services airplanes, to Florex, an environmentally friendly producer of cleaning products. Each tour is conducted entirely in Spanish and gives insight into the business world of a Latin American country, allowing students to examine similarities and differences from their own and understand the importance of building relationships and acknowledging various perspectives.

In addition, students participate in a “Mission Impossible” activity, where they are given tasks around town that they must complete in Spanish. The assignments include anything from ordering a meal at McDonald’s to researching more about the government or country to getting a manicure and pedicure at a local salon. The activities also include the planning of a fiesta for the girls of a nearby orphanage. Students order a cake from a bakery, purchase piñatas, and stuff goody bags for the girls. When the students arrive to throw the party, the girls eagerly give tours of their rooms, teach popular dances and songs, take pictures, play games, and interact with the students. It is a great hands-on community service project that can be carried out successfully and meaningfully within the one-week time frame.

The Costa Rica immersion through the Working Languages program is an incredible opportunity to expand skill sets and knowledge of international customs and traditions in the business world, as well as truly experience local life, all in one action-packed week.