San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

School of the World Teaches Spanish, Surfing, Art and Photography in Jacó

Imagine a school that schedules classes around high tide and swells. Picture taking an exam against the backdrop of chattering monkeys and cawing toucans. Envision a school uniform of bikinis and board shorts. At School of the World, these images are a reality.

The brainchild of Zach McDuffie, School of the World takes a creative approach to learning by combining aspects of a language school, surf camp, art workshop and photo lab, all on one campus. Based in Playa Jacó, on the central Pacific coast, School of the World offers a unique, short-term traveler’s education.

It all began when McDuffie spent six months traveling throughout Costa Rica, immediately after graduating from the University of Georgia in the United States.

“Back then, I had several different dreams,” McDuffie says. “I wasn’t sure if I wanted to become an art professor, start my own business, travel or become an artist.While trying to figure it out, I lived a simple, healthy lifestyle in Costa Rica, surfing, making art, taking photos and learning Spanish.”

McDuffie discovered that most of the language schools in the country were located near San José, far from the natural beauty for which the country is famous.He also learned that, though language schools and surf camps already existed in Costa Rica, no one had ever before combined the two. Slowly, a larger vision began to take shape that would enable McDuffie to realize all four of his career goals.

“As a surfer, artist, photographer and Spanish student, these four areas of interest all had personal relevance to me,” McDuffie says. “I had to find a way to combine all of my individual dreams into one big dream.”

Big dreams generally demand big budgets. Finances presented McDuffie’s first major challenge. With no outside investors and only $3,000 left in personal savings, McDuffie bought a laptop computer and paid the deposit on a set of cabinas that would comprise the infant campus. It was an inauspicious beginning.

“I was flat broke the day I received the keys to the cabinas,”McDuffie recalls. “I rode my bicycle to the bus stop and waited for backpackers to arrive, hoping I could get someone to stay at my ‘hostel.’ There were only two students that first year, and seventeen by the second year. Those first two years, I was the secretary, the maintenance man, the gardener, the pool boy and the teacher.”

But McDuffie’s investment has had a high rate of return. Today, the school employs 12 year-round staff members supplemented by additional employees during peak season. The school attracts 12 to 30 students per month and is in operation year-round. Since its inception in 1997, the school has hosted international students from 18 countries on five continents.

School of the World offers customized study programs designed as learning vacations, lasting one to four weeks. Students can either specialize in a specific area or combine any two of the four subjects offered. Tuition depends on the duration and package selected, and ranges from, for example, $495 for a one-week surfing, art, Spanish or photography program to $1,995 for a four-week combined Spanish and surfing program. Included in the price are classes, field trips and lodging in double-occupancy rooms with access to a kitchen, private bathroom, hot water and air conditioning. Meals are not included in price.

For an additional fee, those enrolled in the four-week Spanish course can also obtain college credit. The school’s language program is equivalent to university-level curriculum with an emphasis on verbal and conversational skills.

It is not uncommon to see School of the World students return multiple times to further their education.

“The entire staff is wonderful,” says Stephanie Doyle, a 2005 graduate. “Marcela, my art instructor, took us to some really cool places, sharing her skills and teaching us about perspective as she pushed us to try new and harder things. The campus is truly amazing and serene. I can’t wait to go back.”

Another former student, Tracy McCarthy, echoes these feelings.

“My stay at the school was amazing,” she says. “Everything was perfect, from the planned events like kayaking and hiking trips to the sunset surfing. Everyone at School of the World put so much effort into making the stay memorable for each student.”

As gratifying as it has been for McDuffie to watch his vision unfold, he has taken even greater pride in seeing it reflected in his students.

“The most rewarding thing that has happened from starting School of the World wasn’t realizing my personal dream; it was watching the ripple effect as it inspired other people to chase after their own dreams,” he says. “Designing your own lifestyle and making it work in the modern world is not an easy thing to do. I feel very lucky that I’ve figured out how to make it work.”

For McDuffie, the biggest challenge is finding the right balance between ambition and satisfaction.

“Too much ambition and you don’t appreciate what you have accomplished,” he says. “Too much satisfaction makes you comfortable and lazy, keeping you from accomplishing even bigger things. I try to wake up ambitious and go to sleep satisfied.”

During the development of School of the World, McDuffie’s involvement was handson at the Jacó location. He personally managed everything from the design and construction of the campus facilities to forming the class curriculum in conjunction with the faculty.

Over time, he transitioned the direction of the school into the hands of Brian Phelps, a college friend who now manages the day-to-day operation of the school.

Their partnership has enabled McDuffie to chase his latest dream: splitting his time between Brazil and Costa Rica, McDuffie is creating a pictorial Spanish study guide.

“I would like to see the School of the World idea expanded,”McDuffie says, “both in new locations and in print or video format.

Right now I’m focusing on the Spanish book. The rest will fall into place.

“One idea under consideration is a Spanish and snowboarding school in Chile or Argentina. Brazil is also a distinct possibility.

There are so many unique and inspiring locations in which to combine action sport programs, language study and authentic culture. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens.”

For more information about School of the World, call 643-2462, e-mail or visit


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