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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Midyear explores ‘pura vida’ before ’Deis

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: Features

When Robyn Lederer of Washington D.C. received her letter informing her that she was a midyear she “flipped out.” With some contemplation and encouragement from friends and family, Lederer chose to see the midyear acceptance as an opportunity.

According to the Brandeis website, “the opportunity to be a midyear is not one that you may have sought out, or even thought of when you applied to Brandeis, we believe that it is a program that benefits the students who decide to participate.” Brandeis initially created the midyear program to accept additional qualified students in January, when more housing and classroom space was available.

Lederer used her free semester to travel to Liberia, Costa Rica and Los Angeles with the Brandeis-recommended program Projects-Abroad. Projects-Abroad, according to their website, is a small organization started in 1992 for students who wanted travel combined with work experience, with the first being sent to teach English in Romania. After significant growth and expansion, Projects-Abroad refers to themselves as the world’s leading international volunteer organization. Today, Project-Abroad sends volunteers aged 16 to 75 all around the world to do volunteer work with a global perspective at a local level within the communities.

Traveling to Costa Rica came with an initial shock to Lederer.

“For the first time, I was not sheltered by any sort of rules and I was not having things done for me,” she said. “Other than being assigned my housing accommodations and work placements, I was on my own to figure out my life in a new country and culture. I was forced to become extremely independent, and to be able to rely first and foremost on my own judgment.”

After the settling in, Lederer, in conjunction with another volunteer from Holland, taught English to kids and adults in local Costa Rican schools. The schools Lederer saw in Costa Rica lacked discipline.

“All the time, kids would just be chasing each other around, leaving the classroom, hurting each other, and just adamantly not listening,” she said.

She could see the dramatic difference in the level of education compared to her private school education in D.C. Twice a week, Lederer went to “community class” at a local elementary school and taught English to a class of adults with no prior exposure to English.

The second month of her time spent in Costa Rica, Lederer worked as a conservationist at Barra Honda National Park. Working in the park, she did research on butterflies and bats, identifying and documenting the various species and appropriate habitats for the animals. Lederer also helped park staff with maintenance, trail marking and other tasks to help make the experience at Barra Honda better for its inhabitants and visitors. Lederer described her time at Barra Honda as not only very physically demanding, but an “opportunity for a lot of introspection on my part, as it was a very remote area and we had limited access to any towns, Internet, TV or phone service.”

A huge part of the experience Lederer had in Costa Rica was reflective upon the different culture. For example, Costa Ricans call themselves “ticos” and are generally laid-back, relaxed and “tranquil.” The national slogan of the country is “Pura Vida,” which means pure life. After some speculation about the accuracy of their slogan, Lederer came to the conclusion that pura vida is a way of life.

“I believe in the concept of pura vida more than anything else, and I believe in seeking it in whatever way possible,” she said. “I think that is what it is supposed to be.”

When Lederer left Costa Rica to return to the States, she reflected upon her time spent away from home.

“Being away from home allowed me to analyze everything much more clearly than I’d ever been able to do from the inside,” she said.

Her experiences in Costa Rica allowed Lederer to take time to relax, embody “pura vida” and reflect upon her life up until that point.

“Just seeing the flashing lights of Atlanta from the plane, which just a few hours before had taken off from the mountainous and green Costa Rica was a shock,” she said. “It’s hard to appreciate the many luxuries and excesses of the United States, until you’ve left.”

The midyear opportunity for some may at first seem daunting or may have a negative connotation, but to have the opportunity that Lederer had to go somewhere and have the experiences she had is invaluable.

“Allowing myself to spend time really experiencing life, and especially life in another country, has been an opportunity that I might not have gotten anytime else so I am definitely glad I did it,” she said.