Hiking through the dark Costa Rican rainforest last summer, searching for native amphibian and reptile species, Luca Cohen and his friends chanced upon an emerald glass frog resting on a tree branch stretched over a stream. This tiny frog, only about an inch long, resides in Central and South American rainforests and features a fascinating adaptation thought to help with camouflage.
“When you look at them from the bottom, you can see through their bodies and intestines and everything else they have inside,” Luca explained. “You hear one, and you think it’s on your left side, but it could be on your right. Or it could be on the ground. They’re just really hard to find.”
Luca, a 9th-year student in the Adolescent Community, was one of seven St. Catherine’s students and alumni who studied with professional biologists in the Children’s Eternal Rainforest in Monteverde last June during a month-long tour of Costa Rica. The students spent five days observing the flora and fauna of the 54,000-acre forest, a marvel of biodiversity protected through the fundraising efforts of children and adults worldwide.
Working side-by-side with visiting scientists—including one of the world’s leading experts on amphibians and mammals—the St. Catherine’s students compiled data used to track changes in species populations and habitats. Among its many applications, the data might help scientists correlate habitat changes with worldwide weather patterns.
“It’s such an amazing experience,” Luca said. “Most people don’t have the opportunity to work with scientists in the field and collect data that will be used for future generations.”
Studying at the Monteverde rainforest was one of several stops on the Adolescent Community’s annual trip to Costa Rica. The trip, also open to alumni, was designed to help incoming 9th-year students develop leadership and communication skills, while also extending their classroom studies. The students do much of the planning and requested extra time this year to study the rainforest. This year’s itinerary also included two weeks in Heredia and one week in Samara living with host families through the Intercultura School’s Spanish-immersion program.
Adolescent Community guide Kathy Hijazi says that beyond the academic benefits, the Costa Rica trip allows students to practice the freedom with responsibility emphasized every day in the Montessori classroom, but in a much larger setting. Ms. Hijazi and guide Audrey Speicher, both of whom have traveled extensively in Costa Rica, chaperoned the trip.
“Really this trip is exactly what Montessori is,” Ms. Hijazi said. “Really what this experience is about is allowing students to step away from their parents in a safe way—that freedom to feel what it’s like to make their own decisions.”
While working at the rainforest, the St. Catherine’s students and guides lodged onsite—cold showers, hammocks and all—and hiked day and night through the mountainous terrain. They used infrared cameras to record species sightings and conducted spectral analysis of birdcalls. In addition to several species of frogs and birds, the group saw a green pit viper, a huge mountain lion, a four-eyed opossum, and two vermiculated screech owls never before observed at that elevation.
Students were asked to work on a project of their choosing inspired by their studies in the rainforest. Some chose to conduct further scientific research, like Lily Thornton, an alumna who studied a particular species of parasitic flower. Others, like Anna Canizales, chose creative writing.
Anna, a 10th grader at Incarnate Word Academy, was inspired by the light gaps in the rainforest, and used her interest as a way to reflect on the wild, unknowable nature of the forest.
“When you’re walking through the rainforest, every once in a while on the path a tree has fallen, so there’s this gap in the canopy where light would ordinarily be blocked, but it’s not,” Anna said. “So it’s like a little enclave in the middle of all this dark, wet, super wet stuff that grows there. You get different kinds of plants there, and I find that fascinating. It’s really cool.”
Rose Gremillion did extended work with the infrared cameras, examining and labeling films containing multitudes of 10-second video footage. Rose attended St. Catherine’s through Adolescent Community and is now a junior in a dual-credit program that allows her to complete coursework at Houston Baptist University and St. Thomas University. This was her second visit to Costa Rica and the Children’s Eternal Rainforest.
In addition to the strenuous hikes and engaging fieldwork, she really valued the opportunity to spend several days in nature without electronics and social media.
“There’s just something about being in a place where there aren’t 5 million people,” she said. “It’s really awesome to be away in isolation from society for a while. One of my favorite parts was knowing I have no clue what’s going on anywhere else right now, but that’s OK. I really enjoyed just being able to unplug.”
The unplugged experience in Monteverde actually inspired her to replace her iPhone—which she lost while zip-lining later on the trip—with a less complicated cellphone when she returned to Houston.
“I feel like we’ve come to a point in society that you can’t do anything without talking to another person whether you’re alone or not,” she said. “On this trip I sort of figured out that it’s boring to talk to people that aren’t even with you. You can’t be with the people that you’re with if you’re always worried about the people you’re not with.”
Adapting to a New Culture
Both before and after visiting the Children’s Eternal Rainforest, the St. Catherine’s group studied Spanish in the language immersion program. The first part of the program was held in the colonial city Heredia, and the second part was in the beach town Samara. In both locations, the students and guides each lived with their own host family—no English-speaking allowed, not to mention no air conditioning. They attended Spanish classes part of the day, had some free time to explore, and then typically spent the evening with the host family. The students walked or biked most places.
It’s managing the small details of everyday life—traffic signs and Internet platforms in a new language, for instance—that make the immersion experience both challenging and valuable, Rose explains.
“For me, one of the most memorable memories was just walking out of the airport,” she said. “It really is a massive group of people, everyone’s yelling, holding up signs. You just have to find your name, and you’re like, OK, I guess I’m going with these people. At that point, it really hit me like a brick—oh my gosh, I don’t speak Spanish.”
Although initially jarring, the experience gives students a chance to get outside of themselves—“to really and truly experience another culture—not at the Hyatt Regency,” Ms. Hijazi said.
“I think it gave them a glimpse into how other people would live,” she said. “We come from this big air-conditioned place where everything is cool—we have such affluence here—but there, no one has AC, we’re riding bikes to class. Living in both of these communities really broadened their perceptions about how other people live.”
It didn’t take long for the students to develop relationships with their new host families and culture. Having the opportunity to be included in the family routine was a rewarding experience for each student in different ways.
Luca was placed with a host mother who happened to be a huge soccer fan. An avid soccer player himself, he enjoyed spending evenings watching the Copa America trials.
“It’s a lot better way to learn Spanish or any language,” he said. “You have to bond with the families you live with, and you get to see what it’s like to live in other places not as wealthy as the United States. I felt I adapted pretty quickly.”
Anna, whose father’s side of the family is from El Salvador, spoke conversational Spanish before the trip, but the immersion experience allowed her to develop greater fluency. She continues to stay in touch with her host families, who she says provided great hospitality.
“They’re all so helpful,” Anna said. “They’ll check on you and ask you if you need anything—it was great. They’re so used to it—every week they have new students from some part of the world. Imagine having a new person coming to live with you every week! They’re used to the uncertainty and nervousness the students have, so they’re very good at making you feel at home.”
Rose particularly enjoyed her host family in Samara. Their lively dinner discussions reminded her of her own family, and she felt good that her Spanish skills had improved enough to keep up with the conversation. While she credits some of her St. Catherine’s peers with having better Spanish skills, Rose says her experiences in Costa Rica have helped her develop conversational competence.
“When I come back, I feel like I have a foot up. I’m like, ‘hey, come at me, bro,’” she jokes.
The St. Catherine’s group also enjoyed experimenting with Costa Rican cuisine. Most of the host families served delicious home-cooked meals, featuring local staples like gallo pinta and casado.
“I really like the food,” Rose said. “That’s something that’s not really present in America. We don’t really have a cultural identity in food—we just have everything. I love rice and beans. Really everything served there is right up my alley.”
During their downtime, students had the freedom to organize their own activities, which included going to the beach, playing soccer, volunteering, shopping, going for ice cream, seeing movies, visiting the nail salon, and attending mass in the historic town church.
The students were responsible for managing their money and time, organizing transportation (when available), and for checking in with guides on a regular schedule. Community meetings and outings helped the group remain cohesive and supportive. Students also learned the importance of walking in groups, thinking about safety, and looking out for one another.
“It’s really different,” Luca said. “You don’t have your normal routine. You don’t really have a schedule. You have a lot more freedom and independence, but you have to be careful because you could easily stay out until 12 and your family would be really worried.”
Although not without a learning curve, the opportunity to live more independently was an experience appreciated by the students.
“Here, because it’s Houston and you can’t walk anywhere, I’m pretty much dependent on my parents to get places,” Anna said. “But I think I had a mindset that was really ready to do stuff like that on my own, so when it happened I was like, yeah, I can do this. When I came back, I was kind of like, whoah, I have parents and can’t go anywhere unless they drive me.”
With greater independence, the students quickly learned that sometimes it’s good to ask for help. Leaning on one another also helped the group adapt to so much novelty.
“It was like a little reunion,” Anna said. “These were some of my closest friends. These are all people I’m super comfortable with and that helps with the nervousness, because you have people around who know you really well.”
After a month abroad, the students had experienced just enough freedom to help them reflect on the changes in store as they adapt to the demands of young adulthood.
“You realize [your parents] are not always going to be in your life—you’re going to move away,” Luca said. “It’s something new. You don’t know what’s going to happen, and you have to be ready for anything.”