Press "Enter" to skip to content

Travel in college: Senior Julia Harencar’s Costa Rica adventure

Students can participate in community services when they study abroad. (Courtesy of Julia Harencar)
Students can participate in community services when they study abroad. (Courtesy of Julia Harencar)

Julia Harencar, senior at Mills College, is happy to be back at Mills playing volleyball, being a resident assistant and finishing her senior year after traveling abroad in Costa Rica for a semester this past spring. For three and a half months she had been involved in community services, rigorous coursework and immersed into a new culture.

Traveling is one aspiration that most people have, and traveling in college can seem like an unreachable goal. However, studying abroad is an ideal and accessible program that college students have the opportunity to do if they have the passion and desire to do so.

Harencar, a biology major and Spanish minor, was part of the School for Field Studies Program — one of many study abroad programs partnered with Mills. As a biology major — on the ecological theory and practice track — Harencar wanted to make sure she could continue her studies while away.  As a Spanish minor, she wanted to work on her language skills. Through research and asking personal and study-abroad advisors, she found that Costa Rica had the strongest science-based field that offered everything she wanted.

In trying to prepare and find what programs to look into, Harencar spoke with her major advisor Dr. Jennifer Smith, her minor advisor Professor Hector Mario Cavallari, and Professor Carlota Caulfied, who is an international advisor for programs in Spain, Latin America and Italy. Harencar found that the School for Field Studies Program would be the best match for her.

During her time abroad, Harencar was able to connect to the community, to the students and staff in the program, and apply her Spanish and biology skills in a variety of ways.

One of Harencar’s most memorable experiences was at Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. On the first day, Harencar and the other students had a field lecture, were given time to explore and then chose partners to come up with an experiment that they would conduct together. Harencar and her partner chose to look at the correlation between surface leaf area (ratio of leaf and how much of it is dry) and exposure to wind, specifically on plants from the Ericaceae family — also known as flowering plants.

Harencar and other students take on the task of cleaning a pond for a 50 pound alligator turtle. (Courtesy of Julia  Harencar)
Harencar and other students take on the task of cleaning a pond for a 50 pound alligator turtle. (Courtesy of Julia Harencar)

“The diversity of life is mind-boggling. Plants are growing on trees and the earth moves when the trees sway. It’s magical,” Harencar said. “ The birds have such decorative plumage that they seem circus like. I was so in awe with nature.”

Harencar was also able to volunteer at an Orchid Nursery and a turtle hospital where she helped clean a 50 pound snapping turtle’s tank.

After her time abroad, Harencar was exhausted from the academics but had just enough time to enjoy Costa Rica and learn some smaller lessons.

“The last two months, we went through a water shortage,” Harencar said. “ I learned to appreciate and understand the luxury of water and conservation.”

In those two months, according to Harencar,the students only had access to water from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. In the lower regions of Costa Rica, there is also no hot water. Many of the students were athletes and like to work out, Harencar included, and had to get used to taking fewer showers.

Harencar said she also experienced similar learning experiences at Mills, but the ones she experienced in Costa Rica were “on a different level because you are immersed into the culture”.

“You learn to step back from your problems, and you have a broad view in a worldly context of what your problems actually look like,” Harencar said. “You appreciate your views more and learn that it’s not the only way of seeing things.”

 Harencar loved her experience of traveling abroad and says she would recommend it to everyone.

“It’s fun to interact with other people from another country, not just as a visitor but as a temporary resident,” Harencar said. “You see different people, ways of living, outlooks and a range of diversity.”

The list of international study advisors can be found on the Mills College website along with what programs and areas they work with.