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Emma Clark

Emma Clark, ’21

Pura Vida: What a bilingual school in rural Costa Rica taught me about life, education, and volunteerism

Displayed: a dirt road in Costa Rica next to a grassy field with a body of water in the distance

It was 7:00 am and already humid. I could feel the sweat pooling on my neck as I breathed heavily, my legs pumping the pedals of my rickety $50 bike along the bumpy gravel road. The same man I saw every day passed me going the opposite direction. 

“Hola,” I smiled nervously.

“Pura vida,” he replied.

These two words, which translate to “pure life,” encapsulate life in Costa Rica and are used to say “hello,” “goodbye,” “you’re welcome,” “thank you,” or answer just about any question you might be asked. The phrase motivates a laid-back philosophy and encourages Costa Ricans to appreciate the little things, focus on what’s important in life, take things slow, not get frustrated or upset about challenges, and most importantly, prioritize relaxation.

As I rounded the next corner, a crack erupted from the sky; I glanced up as rain started to pelt my face. Soon, lightning was splitting through the clouds and the jungle came alive with the sounds of bugs, monkeys, and birds. A storm was upon me.

I biked faster, narrowly avoiding a giant vaca—a Costa Rican cow—as I came up the next hill, its horns pointy and menacing. Finally, my concrete sanctuary came into view. I leaned my bike against the fence and sprinted towards cover.

“Venga venga, Miss Emma!” the children yelled over the pounding of the rain. I gave them a wet hug and sighed with relief as I made it under the metal roof. It was just another day in Sámara.

I’ve wanted to become an elementary school teacher since I was in fourth grade. I get such fulfillment from working with youth and supporting them in making meaning out of the world. I love seeing their passion for learning expand and watching them grow and develop.

Searching for a meaningful way to spend the summer after my first year at Stanford, I was drawn to apply to the Cardinal Quarter program due to my love for volunteering, traveling, and serving youth. The program provided the perfect opportunity for me to further explore my passion for bilingual education and apply my skills in a new setting, all while learning and growing as an educator.

In 2018, I completed a Global Service Fellowship at Sámara Pacific School in Sámara, Costa Rica. The town, located on the coast of the Guanacaste Peninsula, is home to around 2,000 people. There is one main street, a small beach lined with beautiful palm trees, a quaint grocery store, and an endless amount of culture.

Emma standing in front of Sámara Pacific School

Sámara Pacific School, one of three schools in the area, is five kilometers outside of town.

It serves youth in grades one through six, and there are around 25 students and two to three local Spanish-speaking teachers, depending on the day. The school consists of a concrete building with three classrooms, dirt floors, a covered table, a swing set, a soccer goal, and a fence to the keep the local jaguar out.

During my time at the school, I took care of the children and taught classes in Spanish, including math, science, physical education, and Spanish, to students of all ages. I also taught English and occasionally French. In addition to teaching, I prepared costumes, completed paperwork for arts competitions, graded exams, planned lessons, and even redesigned their website.

Lack of resources is a pressing issue in Sámara. Many children don’t have access to school due to the rural setting and the high cost of uniforms, materials, and tuition. Unlike in the United States, teachers in Sámara must take on many roles due to the limited number of qualified and willing candidates. Sámaran teachers aren’t just mere educators, they are also administrators, janitors, school bus drivers, dance instructors, and more. Still, I had many rich exchanges with the Sámaran teachers, absorbing their wisdom and insights to improve my practice and cultural competency as an educator while also sharing some of my pedagogical knowledge and techniques with them.

Some of my most memorable moments were when the teachers and I would sit together during lunch and discuss the similarities and differences between the U.S. and Costa Rican education systems and the faults and strengths of each. It reminded me that there is no right or wrong way to deliver education; the teaching profession is incredibly context-dependent and adaptable; and the American approach to education, like many other things, isn’t always the most equitable or effective solution globally.

My experience in Sámara contributed significantly to my intellectual and civic development, while also allowing me to practice and apply the Haas Center’s Principles of Ethical and Effective Service. I had the chance to learn extensively about the culture of Costa Rica by immersing myself in holiday celebrations, local festivals, the language, and of course, the food.

The pura vida lifestyle also inspired me to approach situations with more optimism, compassion, and openness, and helped me realize how little one needs to thrive—not only in life, but as an educator. I didn’t need technology, electricity, books, or an array of nuanced resources to teach my students effectively; I just needed motivation, patience, and a plan.

I now better understand the mindset one should have when approaching volunteer opportunities as an outsider, and the importance of humility and respect when serving vulnerable populations. One must recognize one’s own privilege and biases, while also appreciating and drawing on the strengths of the community.

Thus, I learned about the important role that reciprocity plays in effective service because what I gained was equal to—if not more—than I gave during my fellowship. The children eagerly corrected my Spanish and helped me improve my grammar; I received feedback from the teachers on my pedagogy; I had the privilege of hearing students’ and teachers’ life stories and struggles; and I got to observe new teaching techniques. I gained many concrete skills that I will be able to apply continually in the future—not only to academics but also my future career.

Already, I have been able to apply what I learned to continued work as a volunteer and educator over the past three years at Stanford through the Barrio Assistance and Habla tutoring programs, as well as Cardinal Courses.

I know that the knowledge and skills I learned during my fellowship will be life-long assets, especially as I transition to becoming a formalized bilingual teacher in the future. This fellowship helped reaffirm my goals and desires for the future and taught me more than many classes at Stanford have. While I didn’t have lectures or tests, I had hands-on experience, in-person evaluations, complete cultural immersion, and unique opportunities to grow as an individual, volunteer, and educator.

This summer, I will start the Stanford Teacher Education Program, studying to earn my elementary education teaching certification with a bilingual authorization. It feels incredible to be so close to achieving a life goal and starting my professional career as an educator.

My Cardinal Quarter in Sámara was a stepping stone in my journey to becoming a teacher that propelled me into the world of education volunteerism and helped me cultivate greater ethical and cultural awareness. I stay in regular contact with Sámara Pacific School and the teachers, and hope to return one day to support them further.

Until then, I plan to embody the pura vida lifestyle to the best of my ability in my personal choices and professional role as an educator.

Emma Clark, ’21, is studying psychology with minors in education and Spanish. She is an honors candidate in education. Her experiences at Stanford have included being an education issue area coordinator at the Haas Center for Public Service; a tutor for Barrio Assistance, Ravenswood Reads, and Habla; a vice president for the Stanford Undergraduate Psychology Association; a community engaged learning coordinator for EDUC 104; a PsychConnect peer advisor; and a Psychology One Program teaching fellow. She has also taken several Cardinal Courses in education and Spanish. Emma is originally from Bellingham, Washington.
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