Costa Rica External Programs Identity Nyah Tinsley Race USAC

Do I look like everyone else?

Something I’ve noticed in the few times I’ve been abroad is that people from other countries tend to easily spot Americans, specifically people from the United States. And with that comes stares. A lot of stares. I remember when I traveled to Ecuador a few years ago with the LASS program at Temple that every time I was out in public, my group and I always received tons of looks and stares. I like to blend in and not seem like a tourist in other countries, so the looks made me feel a little uncomfortable. That plus being one out of four black students in my program added to the strangeness I felt when I first arrived.

Visiting Mitad del Mundo in Quito, Ecuador.
Visiting Mitad del Mundo in Quito, Ecuador.

Applying to come to Costa Rica, I was assuming it would be the same experience. Based on my past trips abroad, and stories I’ve heard from friends who also were abroad at some point, I noticed there are very few people of color, or minorities, that end up in these programs. In my current program, I am only one of two people of color, which discouraged me a bit when I found out who all would be going to Costa Rica with me. I had nothing against them, but for me, sometimes it can be easier to relate to people who have experienced life in a similar way that I have. Being a minority is what we have in common and maybe we come from similar cultures.

My family is already very culturally diverse so I am used to being around and relating to different types of people, but having that comfort that someone can relate to you in the same way while in a foreign country is an added bonus for me. When applying for a study abroad program, don’t let the possibility of being the minority discourage you! Even though I was only a little bit disappointed at first, now that I’m here, I’ve been able to make great friends and have had a chance to get to know everyone.

As for the stares, you’ll get them because you’re from the United States; they don’t necessarily go away. But, my experience in Costa Rica has been different than when I traveled to Ecuador. I was having a conversation with my host mom one day and I asked her if I looked like I could be from Costa Rica. I told her I noticed that when I’m walking around in public alone, nobody pays me any mind, but when I’m with other people in my program and am speaking English, that’s when I receive looks. My host mom said the reason for that is that I don’t necessarily look North American (if I don’t speak English). She told me I could be from Limón, which is an area on the side of the country closest to the Caribbean, due to my tan skin complexion (similar to many of the population) and my curly hair. Because I like to blend in more when I’m overseas to ease my discomfort, I was pretty happy to hear this coming from my host mom.

Me visiting El Museo de Arte Costarricense.
Me visiting El Museo de Arte Costarricense.

Obviously not every person of color will blend in with the citizens in the country they choose to study abroad in since everyone looks different, but I think it definitely helped me be more comfortable with being out in public. It also gives me a perfect opportunity to practice my Spanish. Countless times, Costa Ricans have come up to me and started speaking Spanish. This also happens to me very often when I’m in the U.S. But, I noticed when I was with other people in my program, Costa Ricans would come up to them and try to speak English right away. It’s been an interesting observation I’ve made.

My experience being a minority abroad has been different with each country I’ve been to, some better than others. I want to share these experiences to hopefully encourage other students of color to consider studying abroad despite the possibility of being a minority in their program. The experience is definitely worth it!

Read another student’s experience about being a person of color in Italy!

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