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Doing good in Costa Rica

Debora Biasutti

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Being a Resident Assistant, a Campus Ambassador, part of the National Residence Hall Honorary and an active student in the Newman Center wasn’t enough for junior Abby Chilsen. She wanted more for her life – that’s when she embarked on a new adventure in Costa Rica this past summer.

Chilsen, a pre-med biology major, decided to study abroad in Costa Rica through the Nursing and Health Care Professions program offered by the Center for International Education at UW-Eau Claire so she could use both her health care and Spanish knowledge.

“I’d like to be a doctor specifically in a Spanish-speaking area,” Chilsen said. “It fit my goals perfectly to go on this program and learn some Spanish, experience the culture and also be able to use Spanish in a health care setting.”
First days

The transition from Wisconsin to Costa Rica, Chilsen said, was a tough one. It was during summer time that she was used to being home and spending time with her family and friends, and not having them at first was difficult, she said.

“Being away from home was really tough at first, but I was really lucky with the host family that I had. They really supported me and gave that family away from home.”

Another factor that made it tough for Chilsen in the first few days was the weather. When she arrived in Costa Rica, it was very hot but at the same time was the raining season, when it “rained like all day, every day.”

But soon after arrival classes started, as well as the volunteer work hours. Chilsen said they weren’t based in any university and the classes were taught at a community center.

“It was really distracting because we had the swimming pool on one side of the classroom building and we had a soccer field on the other side and it was all open air, so there were people all over all the time.”

Among the volunteer work, Chilsen said they had a week where they went to elementary schools to carry out a workshop on nutrition and exercise to fight the obesity epidemic that is hitting Costa Rica.

Chilsen and the group also went door to door in the community to talk about Dengue fever and H1N1 flu and how to avoid it, and how to prevent and get rid of mosquitoes.

“We would get referrals to people who showed the symptoms, so that they could go to the clinic and be seen right away,” Chilsen said.

Near-death experience

Once the classes were done and the Service Learning hours completed, Chilsen’s mom flew from Wisconsin to spend her last week in Costa Rica with her. One of the places they wanted to go was Monteverde, which is a tourist attraction up in the mountains with a rain forest and cable bridges, Chilsen said.

But when Chilsen and her mother were in a bus coming up a bridge on their way home to Miramar at 8 p.m. during heavy rain, they saw a man with a reflective vest on in the middle of the highway waving his hands for the bus to stop.

“(The man) said that part of the bridge had collapsed and if we looked out of the window we could see that there was kind of a truck hanging off in the edge of the bridge into the river below.”

Chilsen said there were two lanes on the bridge, and one of the lanes and a little part of the other one were completely gone. The bus driver told them they needed to cross the bridge on foot and that maybe a taxi would be on the other side waiting for them.

“We could feel the bridge kind of shaking,” Chilsen said. “We could feel the water rushing underneath it and there was this enormous hole.”

Pat Chilsen, Abby Chilsen’s mother, said she has never been as frightened in her life as she was while crossing the bridge.

“I truly wondered if we would make it home,” she said.

Once they got to the other side of the bridge, there were no taxis or anything waiting for them.

“I didn’t know what to do and we weren’t going to walk the seven miles to town in the dark along the Pan-American highway,” Abby said.

Pat Chilsen suggested that Abby Chilsen ask the guy that was on the bus with them if they could use his cellphone. But his cellphone had no service due to the storm and he said the only way to get back was to hitchhike.

Abby Chilsen, her mother and the man started to walk along the highway until they found someone to take them home.

“We got in the back of a truck with this man and at one point the man who was driving the truck turned around and said, ‘You shouldn’t have crossed the bridge. The bridge is going down. It’s too dangerous, people shouldn’t be crossing it’,” Abby Chilsen said.

After a while they finally made it to the next bus stop and Abby Chilsen said she ran to a restaurant where she had to argue with the man at the front desk to let her use his phone.

After calling a taxi, Abby Chilsen and her mother finally made it to her host family’s house, where her host mom was sitting on the front step with a cordless phone in her hand just “freaking out,” Abby Chilsen said.

Abby Chilsen’s host mom took her inside and showed her the news, where they were announcing that the bridge had collapsed.

“In the time it took me to get from the bridge to home, the bridge had collapsed,” Abby Chilsen said.

Abby’s host mom thought that when the bridge had collapsed and Abby Chilsen’s real mom and her had gone into the river, so she called the Red Cross and they were looking for them in the water.

“I don’t know how nearly death it was,” Abby Chilsen said. “But it was a scary experience.”

But there was still one more issue. Abby Chilsen and her mother would have to cross that bridge again to catch a bus to the airport in the next few days.

Abby Chilsen said the government rigged up a little metal bridge so people could go across it, but it was large enough for only one person to go through. Abby Chilsen’s neighbor said he would cross the little metal bridge with them so Abby and her mother wouldn’t be too nervous.

“We crossed the little metal bridge with all of our luggage and everything,” Abby Chilsen’s said.

Although it was a scary time, Abby Chilsen said that it didn’t change her experience in Costa Rica at all.

“It’s definitely a fun story to tell people and looking back, it was pretty scary,” she said. “But that experience didn’t in any way change my love for the country or change what an awesome experience I had.”

Best moments

Chilsen said that among all the experiences she had in Costa Rica, what she enjoyed the most was spending time with her host family. Besides her host mother, she had a host sister named Andrea Fernandez, who is 16, and a host brother named Alejandro Fernandez, who is 15.

“My brother and sister and I got on with each other really well,” Chilsen said. “We would do our homework together every night and joke around and my mom was just hilarious.”

Chilsen said she was closer to her host mother Marietta Morales than to anyone else and she spent a lot of time with her. Chilsen also said that in one of her last nights in Costa Rica, her host mother grabbed Abby and her daughter and put her hands around both of them and said “I love my daughters.”

“I just started to cry because it’s something really special to know somebody for nine weeks and all of a sudden you’re their daughter,” Chilsen said. “That’s not something everyone gets to experience.”

Chilsen said that it was definitely hard to leave her host family once she had to go back home, but at the same time she said she was glad to be back in Wisconsin.

Back to reality

“Out of the loop.”

That’s how Chilsen describes herself when she first got back to Wisconsin. She said that she didn’t know any of the movies that were released during summer, any of the music on the radio and “had no idea what Jersey Shore was.”

“It was like a joke with my friends, where they were like, ‘Oh, Abby has been under a rock all summer, she doesn’t know what’s going on’,” Chilsen said.

Regarding her family and living at home, Chilsen said that she picked up right where she left off. When she got back to Wisconsin, she didn’t go to her town right away. Instead, she went to her family’s cabin in northern Wisconsin and stayed there for a week.

“I had a really gradual transition when I got home, so it didn’t feel it was a big deal at all to get back,”
she said.


When asked if she would go abroad again, Chilsen said she hopes within the next couple of years to go back and visit her host family. She is also looking at other volunteer programs where Pre-Med, Pre-Dental and Pre-Vet students go out to both Costa Rica and Panama to do volunteer work.

“I haven’t exactly talked to my parents to whether they’re going to be okay with that or not, but I’d really like to do that,” she said.

Chilsen expects to be graduating from UW-Eau Claire in December 2012 and plans to apply to 15 to 20 medical schools all over the country.

“Its really competitive, so I’m going to apply and from there just see if I get accepted.” Chilsen said. “If I have options, it will be great.”

But Chilsen won’t stop there. After medical school, she said she wants to go back to Latin America or South America, and because of her Spanish minor, Abby said it would be easier to communicate and practice medicine at the same time.

“I really want to be a doctor and I’m really considering maybe for the first few years after I’m out of school, maybe going on ‘Doctors without borders’ or doing mission work.”

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The official student newspaper of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire since 1923.
Doing good in Costa Rica