Europeans are becoming more visible at Costa Rica’s top public university, a longtime destination for U.S. citizens studying abroad.
Between 2005 and 2007, the number of European exchange students at the University of Costa Rica (UCR) increased more than 70%, while the number of U.S. citizens dropped 22%, according to data from the school’s student exchange office.
U.S. citizens still far outnumber Europeans on the San Pedro campus, east of San José. Some 135 students from U.S. schools began classes at the UCR in March, compared to 74 from European schools, mostly in Germany, Spain and France.
But the trend toward a greater European presence is clear, said department head Sandra Chollette. More European schools have asked to sign contracts with the UCR to send students there, while some U.S. schools have allowed their contracts to expire.
Officials said they are unsure of the reasons for the trends.
Founded in 1940, the UCR is generally regarded as the best university in Costa Rica. It ranks 22nd among Latin American universities and 843rd among universities across the globe, just behind the University of Central Arkansas and just ahead of Sweden’s OrebroUniversity, according to a report by the Superior Council on Scientific Research, which is part of the Spanish Education Ministry. (See http://www.webometrics.info/top4000.asp.)
In the next few years, foreign faces at the UCR may change further, as Chollette expects to sign accords with Chinese universities to bring their students here.
After Costa Rica began diplomatic ties with China in June, Chollette received enthusiastic e-mails in broken Spanish from Chinese youths looking to study at the UCR. Amused, she saved the correspondence.
“One day surely those people will come, and I can show them I still have their emails,” she said.
While foreigners flock to the UCR, few Costa Rican students can afford to study abroad. They pay UCR tuition – about $230 a semester – but must swallow costs for airfare and room and board. With just four European schools offering scholarships, only 27 UCR students studied abroad last year, compared to 270 foreign undergraduates at UCR.
“That’s the most disappointing thing for us,” Chollette said. “The goal is to … give Costa Rican students more options to leave.”
Foreigners come to Costa Rica to learn Spanish and experience a new culture. But disoriented upon arrival, they often cling to their fellow countrymen and women, said Simon Schwab, a German student taking classes at the UCR.
“I think most foreigners hang out with student friends,” said Schwab, an intern at the student exchange office.
When Schwab, 28, arrived on campus in February, he posted a note on a bulletin board seeking Tico friends to practice Spanish. In return, he would help them with their German, the notice said. Schwab now has two-hour gab sessions with Ticos two or three times a week.
UCR’s student exchange office is also taking pains to integrate foreigners. Chollette encourages students to do homestays with Tico families, and the department plans to pair foreign students with Tico “buddies” beginning next semester.
Beyond cultural exchange, the measures are important for security reasons, Chollette said. Clusters of foreigners, with their cell phones and cameras in hand, are “an easy target” for thieves, she said.
In July, MississippiStateUniversity brought home 20 students who had been taking classes at the UCR after three of them were robbed and one was injured.
As crime becomes more frequent here, the department is taking measures to protect foreign students. At Chollette’s request, the U.S. Embassy gave a talk on security to about 25 English-speaking exchange students in late February. But she doesn’t want to go overboard.
“They (the students) are not worried, and we don’t want to scare them.”