Student shares experience studying abroad in Costa Rica


Photo courtesy of Dakota Zehler

Junior Dakota Zehler is currently studying abroad in Costa Rica.

Sarah Gudenau, Features Editor

Junior Dakota Zehler is on a two-month long study abroad trip to Costa Rica, which began on June 30 and will end on Aug. 7. Part of Oakland University’s Business Honors program, he studies economics and has a minor in Spanish.

Zehler attends what was previously the University of Georgia’s campus in San Luis de Monteverde, which is now run by the Council for International Education Exchange (CIEE). This summer he has three classes: Tropical Ecology, Humans in the Tropics and Spanish, as well as an independent research project about the economic efficiency of different systems of leaf cutter ants.

With his classes, Zehler has had the opportunity to explore different ecosystems of the biologically diverse country. His class took three trips to different ecosystems to record species at various biological stations or reserves.

The Humans in the Tropics class includes trips off-campus to meet people in the professional field and see different forms of sustainability. One visit, for example, was to a small local coffee farmer to learn about his process and how it varies from large-scale plantations.

The trip has also been an opportunity for Zehler to immerse himself in Spanish. While Tropical Ecology and Humans in the Tropics are taught in English, Zehler’s Spanish class is entirely in the language and many of the professionals they meet speak Spanish, though there is a translator on their trips.

Currently, toward the end of the program, students are focusing on their independent research projects, so Zehler spends his mornings collecting data.

“It’s been really nice, especially for me, not having a huge science background at all. I’ve been able to slowly work into the process, and then the last month has been just going out and doing it, which has been really enjoyable.”

Zehler has learned that ecology is a field of interest for him. As for his plans post-graduation, he is still contemplating going to law school for environmental law or obtaining a Master’s degree in sustainable development.

“My dream job scenario would be working in the UN, with some extent toward sustainable development,” Zehler said.

Zehler plans to study abroad again. He’d like to travel to Spain next spring.

“I think the biggest thing that I’ve kind of learned with my experience of study abroad is how affordable it is,” Zehler said.

“I think for what I’m getting out of it, the costs are definitely worth it, and it’s not a huge difference in price, especially when taking into account financial aid and scholarships, which I was lucky enough to get through the International Education Office.” 

To cover the costs of studying abroad, students may be eligible for OU and external scholarships.

“We give about $45,000 a year just in scholarships that are dedicated exclusively to the study abroad program. We received a very generous grant from the Oakland University credit union — they’re establishing a million dollar fund for study abroad scholarships that will be fully funded as of next year, so that will be approximately an additional $45,000 per year,” said Alex Zimmerman, director of international education.  

Besides financial aid resources, the office also has advisors that can help students find the right programs, plan their trips and complete the online applications. 

To any student who is considering studying abroad but feels apprehensive, Zehler says: “Traveling to a new living environment is always going to give you some level of anxiety because it’s new, but the best thing that you can do for yourself is to have more experiences because it makes you a more understanding and knowledgeable person.”