Costa Rica study abroad writing class immerses students in nature

UTRGV study abroad students listen intently to their guide during a birding and nature hike in Costa Rica’s Corcovado Wildlife Refuge, known for biodiversity second only to the Amazon. The group was participating in a two-week English composition course entitled “Living, Reading, Writing Nature,” where they lived at Hacienda Barú Wildlife Refuge and Lodge, 830 acres reclaimed from a cattle ranch now dedicated to local conservation and education. (Courtesy Photo)

By Cheryl Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – AUG. 31, 2016 – Eleven adventurous UTRGV students traveled to Costa Rica this summer to participate in a study abroad writing course led by Pamela Herring, lecturer in the Department of Writing and Language Studies.

Their destination, Hacienda Barú, is an 830-acre wildlife refuge and lodge where Herring, for six years, has been conducting an English composition course entitled “Living, Reading, Writing Nature.”

When they landed in San José, the group was met by Deiner Cascante, a true native of Hacienda Barú who was born on the refuge, for the three-hour drive to their home away from home.

Briana Garcia, a junior environmental science major from San Benito, said the Happy Planet Index made her curious about Costa Rica.

“I wanted to compare the environment of Costa Rica to the United States, in relation to the population, health, biodiversity and industrialization,” Garcia said. “The Happy Planet Index indicates Costa Rica to be the country ranked highest for happiness, and I wanted to learn why. My two weeks in Hacienda Barú showed me the answer.”

Herring’s assigned readings for the class are two books written by Jack Ewing, one of the two founders of the Hacienda Barú National Wildlife Refuge. Ewing’s first book, “Monkeys Are Made of Chocolate: Exotic and Unseen Costa Rica,” was published in 2005. Last year, he followed up with “Where Tapirs and Jaguars Once Roamed: Ever-Evolving Costa Rica,” which was edited by Herring. A third book for the class is “Gift from the Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, published in 1955.

Herring’s writing assignments included responding to the books, journal writing and essays about the experience of being so close to nature.

“The course makes such an impact, five of my students have returned for a second time and one returned for a whole semester as an intern to work at Hacienda Barú,” Herring said.

Kaylan Vazquez, a junior psychology major from Brownsville, was a second-timer this year; she first took the class in 2014.

“It was so overwhelming, I just had to go back to soak it all in, to absorb everything,” she said. “Everyone there is so amazing, and I was surprised at how many people remembered me – even the lady who runs the little store down the road.”


Days at Hacienda Barú started early, always waking to the chirping of an assortment of birds. After a healthy breakfast, the students had full days with activities that included mangrove birding and nature hiking with an Hacienda Barú guide; meditating, writing and sketching in the butterfly garden; attempting a 150-foot rope tree climb; zip-lining through the canopy; spending a night in the jungle in special shelters; and cooling off at the swimming pool and Barú Beach.

Brownsville native Erika Ortiz had taken environmental studies classes and was an English tutor for Herring for three years.

“I had heard so much about Costa Rica study abroad I decided to drain my savings account and go on the trip this summer, even though I graduated in May with my bachelor’s degree in business management and marketing, along with a minor in environmental studies,” Ortiz said.

“I have learned how the environment has such an impact on our health and habitat. I feel it is important that businesses implement policies that will favor both customers and the environment, so I wanted to go to Hacienda Barú and witness a business that has managed such a balance.”

After returning from Costa Rica, Ortiz completed six weeks of training with Target Corporation in a junior management program, where she will start in the human resources department. She will also begin working on her Master of Business Administration at UTRGV this semester.

When the students were not engaged in activities on the sprawling acreage of Hacienda Barú, Cascante would drive them to other sites, such as Rancho La Merced Wildlife Refuge where they went horseback riding and swimming in a waterfall.

Other excursions included a boat trip on the Sierpe River that transported them to a birding and nature tour of Corcovado Wildlife Refuge, known for biodiversity second only to the Amazon; visiting the Alturas Wildlife Sanctuary where rescued rainforest wildlife are rehabilitated and released; and swimming at Marino Ballena, called the Whale’s Tail beach.


Throughout their stay, students were responsible for fulfilling their writing assignments – all in longhand because Herring does not permit laptops.

“Although Hacienda Barú receives reception for TV, radio and Wi-Fi, this course required us to be technology free so we could experience firsthand what Mother Nature provides and be one with nature,” Vazquez said.

On a couple of treks into the closest village at Dominical Beach, the students were able to email from a Wi-Fi coffee shop and use their phones to text. On Saturday, Herring permitted the group to “play tourist” and use their phones.

Garcia, Vazquez and Ortiz emphasized the unique status the students enjoyed while at Hacienda Barú, due to Herring’s seven-year relationship with Jack and Diane Ewing. Jack is the owner and manager of Hacienda Barú Lodge and Ecotours.

“Jack and Diane always save special time for my students,” Herring said. “Jack recounts his experiences developing a wildlife refuge from a cattle ranch, as well as his ideas about writing. And Diane sets aside time to tell the students about her 38 years in the jungle, sharing her knowledge of ‘bush medicine’ and her gift of compassion toward animals and people.”

A tradition has evolved that Herring’s students prepare a meal for the Ewings on their last night at Hacienda Barú.

“We were creative and made a delicious family-style meal to thank them for all they did for us, Garcia said. “Such a beautiful evening, under the stars, good food, good conversation, and Jack and Diane signed our books for us – it was very special.”

For more information regarding study abroad opportunities, contact International Programs and Partnerships at IPP is part of the Office of Global Engagement.

UTRGV Senior Writer / 956-882-878
UTRGV Director of News and Internal Communications / 956-665-2742