Marysville-Pilchuck HS student lives, studies for one year in Costa Rica

Marysville native Rebecca Donaldson, right, and her
Marysville native Rebecca Donaldson, right, and her 'host sister,' Laura Coto, visit the ancient city of Guayabo, nestled in the modern city of Turrialba, in Coto's home country of Costa Rica.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

MARYSVILLE — Rebecca Donaldson will be starting her senior year at Marysville-Pilchuck High School after this summer, but even before she graduates next school year, she'll already have acquired some valuable experience in the broader world.

From July 16 of last year through June 12 of this year, Donaldson lived in Costa Rica, in the city of Cariari, in the province of Limon, as part of the American Field Service exchange student program. Donaldson had heard about the program through her Spanish teacher, and was excited by the opportunity, but it came with serious requirements. Not only did Donaldson need a good academic record to be considered, but she also had to show that she was involved in her school and her community, in ways ranging from leadership to extracurricular activities. A family interview was even conducted, to ensure that she was emotionally stable enough to make it through nearly a year in another country.

Donaldson explained that her school days in Costa Rica ran from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday, at a high school that included grades 7-11, since Costa Rican high schools don't have a 12th grade. She took 16 different classes each week, all in Spanish, but she soon found out how different Costa Rican schools are from American schools.

"When teachers were sick, or didn't want to show up for class, there weren't any substitutes," Donaldson said. "The teacher just didn't show up, and you didn't have that class that day. You also had hour-long breaks between some classes, and you didn't have the same classes every day."

Donaldson's status as an American was a mixed blessing in Costa Rica. On the one hand, it made her very popular with her Costa Rican classmates, whom she credited with always trying to speak English to her, and helping her understand her classes, but by the same token, she wound up dyeing her blonde hair brown, and learning not to speak up, when she was in the market to buy things, since many sellers would charge double their regular prices as soon as they heard her American accent. Likewise, in order to make her classes easier, since she was still learning Spanish, the Costa Rican high school bumped Donaldson, who would have been a high school junior, down to ninth grade, although she graduated up to 10th grade midway through her year in Costa Rica, since the Costa Rican school year starts in February and ends in December.

Donaldson was able give back to her school and her community. She served as an English tutor at the high school, and in one week, she helped build three houses for people in need. She also developed strong bonds with her host mother, Iris Coto, and her host sister, Coto's daughter Laura, with whom Donaldson spent "all my days." Laura Coto spent many of those days teaching Donaldson more Spanish, often by watching Spanish-language soap operas on television together.

"Costa Rica is so close-knit," Donaldson said. "If you have a problem, you can go and talk to anyone about it, and they'll try to help you. Here, we're more competitive, about who's richer or has the better house, but there, it doesn't matter. The first two months that I was there, I wanted to go home, but by the last three months that I was there, I wanted to stay."

The flip side of the increased intimacy that Donaldson noticed in Costa Rica was the more "aggressive" attention that she received from boys her age in the country.

"They'll go, 'Psst, psst,' and call your name, and if you even turn your head, they'll think you're ... easy?" Donaldson said. "They'll try and touch you, and you just have to tell them, 'Leave me alone!' You don't really have your own space there."

A lack of personal space was one of many American amenities that Donaldson has become grateful for. Although she enjoyed her meals in Costa Rica, rice and beans were a staple of her breakfasts, lunches and dinners, on those days that her host family even had food enough for meals. Cold showers were not optional for Donaldson in Costa Rica, and while she actually enjoyed them when the weather was warm, she found it difficult to endure such showers on cold or rainy days. Sometimes, she had to borrow water from her host mother's adult son, who lived with his wife in another house, since there would be times when they had no water at all. Rather than being flushed, used toilet paper is thrown into separate garbage cans in Costa Rica, and then burned.

"I took things for granted in America, like how big our houses are here," Donaldson said. "They don't waste a lot of things there."

Donaldson's mother, Sharon, corresponded with her daughter through regular e-mails, and phone calls every Sunday. As Rebecca Donaldson described visiting the ancient city of Guayabo, nestled in the modern city of Turrialba, or meeting with the Costa Rican vice president, at a dance where she was campaigning for the country's presidential primary, Sharon Donaldson observed that her daughter had become more mature and appreciative of what she has in her own country.

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