Interview Conducted by: Tugce Capraz, International House Student Worker, T ‘14
Costa Rica & Panama
Tell us a little about yourself. I am currently a Junior studying Biology and Neuroscience. I was born in Costa Rica to a Costa Rican mother and Venezuelan father, but at a young age I moved to the Republic of Panama because it was a “neutral/central” place in between Costa Rica and Venezuela. Also, my parents started working at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. As a Third Culture Kid I feel at home everywhere and nowhere. I enjoy playing soccer (or any other sport), relaxing in a sunny place, outdoor adventures, learning about new things (especially in the scientific field), eating LoYo, and traveling.
Why did you choose the US, particularly Duke University as your place of study? I always knew that I wanted to attend a university in the U.S, Canada or Europe. The quality of a university level education in Panama is quite low compared to most other countries. After I came to the girl’s soccer camp at Duke in high school, I immediately fell in love with this place. So, I applied Early Decision and got in! Duke has all of the things that I wanted in a higher level education institution: great research opportunities, high technological resources/facilities, prestigious academic and athletic records, fun social life, amazing professors, and a diverse student body. Also, I have a growing enjoyment of the Southern culture (my friends at home make fun of me for liking country music). Duke (and North Carolina) just feels like home.
Can you talk about the biggest differences between American and Panama educational culture? How is the classroom setting different or similar? How have you adjusted yourselves to the dissimilarities? I attended an international school all of my life, so we followed an American educational system and the International Baccalaureate (IB) curriculum. My school was fairly small and normal class sizes had about 20 students. I was not used to attending 400 student lectures and taking all multiple-choice exams (which are mostly curved). Also the overall educational culture in Panama was not as intense and competitive as it is here at Duke. Students at home always helped each other and cared about making sure your friends did well too. Another main difference is that in Panama all of my teachers knew who I was and helped me when needed; as opposed to here, were you have to be proactive when seeking for help from a professor. At Duke, there is a very independent and competitive attitude and it’s easy to fall behind. Nevertheless there are many more opportunities to select challenging, yet fascinating classes. You can get help through faculty office hours, writing studios, academic advising centers, amongst other resources.
What other aspects of the American culture do you find most rewarding or frustrating? The most rewarding aspect of the American culture is based on getting to know people with diverse life experiences and stories. Everyone has something interesting to share and its great to hear about different perspectives on issues that I thought where non-debatable.
Nevertheless, some cultural frustrations that I have encountered involve interactions with Americans who don’t know where my countries (Costa Rica, Panama, Venezuela) are located, or anything outside of the US “bubble” for that matter. There are people who want to know everything, yet others who don’t care about learning about anything that is not U.S related. In addition, American culture is very self-consuming and sometimes overwhelming. Also, during my first semester at Duke, it was hard to enjoy any type of food here and get used to the huge serving sizes.
How are you adjusting to American Culture? What steps have you taken to help you adjust better? Moving to the United States after living in Latin America all of my life dramatically shifted my perception of the world and myself, yet I’ve adjusted very well to this culture as I learned to enjoy the many different and unique things that it has to offer. The social scene is very different from the one at home, so I had to just accept the differences and embrace the good aspects of it. In regards to the food, I had to learn how to balance my meals and quantities (American portions are very different from my usual portions at home). It’s funny because when I go back home my family and friends comment on how “American” I’ve become. I now appreciate American mainstream music, series, and popular culture references and use them on my everyday life. I had to adjust to all of these new things in order to adapt, but I’ve also managed to maintain my cultural values and identity.
How did your thoughts about the USA change after coming here? I had visited the US many times before coming to Duke. I also prepared myself by watching typical American movies and series. Needless to say my views about the US college culture was based on stereotypes and movie plots. Before coming I thought the USA was very socially stratified and groups were divided depending on their race, ethnicity, and cultural background. I was surprised that this was not entirely true and that people are open to diversity and curious about different cultures (obviously there are always exceptions).
What do you do in your spare time? Do you belong to any student organizations or groups? I am a student worker at the International House as well as being part of the International House Orientation Peers (IHOPs), Environmental Alliance Club, International Ambassadors, and playing intramural sports. In addition I’m part of MUNDI, a new internationally focused selective living group.
What are you planning to do after graduation? Hopefully I will be attending graduate school in the U.S or Europe. I still don’t know if I will take a year to do research or an internship before continuing with my education. After grad school I want to return to Panama or Costa Rica to continue pursuing my own research and making a change in the advancement of science and technology based fields.
What do you miss the most about Panama and Costa Rica? How would you describe them to someone who hopes to visit one day? I miss my family, friends, the tropical weather, latin music/dancing, and home made food (specially rice and beans). I describe Panama as a growing metropolis with lots of historical sites to visit and a unique nightlife. Costa Rica has beautiful mountains, beaches and volcanoes and more “nature” based activities. Both countries are extremely different in cultural, historical, and physical aspects, yet I love them both because they have contributed to who I am today.
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