Gaining hands-on experience in Costa Rica
This Interim five St. Olaf College students took on a unique and challenging task: to design and build an educational trail promoting ecotourism in rural Costa Rica.
The team — which included Andy Catania ’13, Reed Deardorff ’13, Ellen Hawley ’13, Daniel Malecha ’13, and Justine Dammermann ’14 — spent a month working at La Anita Rainforest Ranch in Alajuela, Costa Rica, an experience that enabled them to earn academic credit while getting their hands dirty (literally) in the process.
With the support of the St. Olaf Piper Center for Vocation and Career, the students were able to immerse themselves in learning about sustainability and ecotourism by creating educational trails, working with cacao trees and other local crops, and testing the ranch’s products, all while living in a rural village.
And the experience was largely made possible by Catania, who had interned at La Anita two years ago. He enjoyed his time there so much that he contacted the Piper Center to help him recruit a group of students for this year and aid him in making it an annual option for Oles.
“These kind of experiences fuse well with the mission of the Environmental Studies Department and the college,” says Associate Professor of Chemistry Paul Jackson ’92, who serves as chair of the Environmental Studies Department and has been the faculty supervisor for the past two trips to La Anita. “It truly encapsulates an opportunity to get one’s hands dirty, practice what you’ve learned, and continue to learn from others in a community. We don’t want our graduates to just think about ideas; we want them to act.”
Action was certainly a major component of the students’ experience on the ranch as they worked to create an educational trail from scratch.
“We got there, walked the 2-mile trail, and realized we were basically walking through the jungle along the stream,” says Catania. “Our first task was to design a critical plan for how we were going to do this — we had to address safety issues along the trails, do ecological research on different species so we could label them, and decide which areas needed some clean up.”
The process required ingenuity at every turn. “Every day we had a different problem to try and solve,” says Catania. “Everybody’s diverse backgrounds lent themselves to different problems. We had to do all kinds of engineering activities, like creating rope systems to move huge stones around, and the chemistry and biology majors did a lot of work identifying the trees and figuring out what was what.”
Creating the opportunity
Catania first traveled to the Costa Rican ecotourism ranch and former macadamia nut plantation in January 2011. “I had a really strong connection to the place, and I wanted to go back,” he says. “It fit the experiential component of the environmental studies major really well, so I kept thinking, ‘How can we make use of this?’”
A few months before this Interim, the owners of La Anita suggested he bring along a bigger group to help with more ambitious projects, and Catania started recruiting. He worked closely with Associate Director of Internships Sandy Malecha in the Piper Center, sending emails to various departments and searching for volunteers. After planning out the costs and designing the program, Catania set out to interview the students who had applied. Eventually he found himself a group of four students, all from different academic backgrounds.
“When I found out about this opportunity, I immediately knew I wanted to go,” says Hawley, who had previously traveled to Costa Rica over interim for a Spanish course. “I wanted to return to Costa Rica, and the internship was a great hands-on experience for my environmental studies concentration.”
The trail the students created is part of the ranch’s ecotourism goal — to show people unique biological areas in a way that minimizes impact. They aim to teach visitors about sustainability and local culture, and allow them to be part of a business that revolves around giving back.
“The ranch works with the town, that’s the whole idea of ecotourism,” says Catania. “It employs many people from a very poor village. La Anita has helped to buy computers for school, donated money to the police station, and provided jobs for the community.”
Now, Catania is working with St. Olaf faculty and staff to make La Anita Rainforest Ranch an annual destination for Oles of all majors.
“It’s a unique and authentic experience that I don’t think you can get anywhere else,” he says. “You have the chance to be part of a project that will be there for a while, that will contribute to the livelihood of these people. You’re doing something very important.”