The newest class of Costa Rica Peace Corps volunteers was sworn in at a ceremony at the U.S. Ambassador’s Residence in Escazú Wednesday morning. The 18 volunteers, whose ages range from 22 to 32, will be working alongside the Education Ministry and nongovernmental organizations on youth development issues, including sexual and reproductive health, education, gender equality, leadership and teaching English as a second language.
The Peace Corps arrived in Costa Rica in 1963, two years after President John F. Kennedy founded the program. Since then, Costa Rica has distinguished itself with a development agenda focused on education, universal health care and conservation that President Luis Guillermo Solís trumpeted during an address to the United Nations on Wednesday.
Costa Rica is a relatively developed country, but more work remains in many areas, said Laura Borel, director of Peace Corps training here.
“Without a doubt, in some countries where Peace Corps operates the needs are much greater. Here in Costa Rica the programs are strategically located in rural communities that might have their basic needs met but need support in youth development, health and community development,” Borel said. The 18 sworn in Wednesday are all working in youth development programs.
Borel noted that successful Peace Corps volunteers need to have an open mind and work with their community.
“At the beginning there is a lot to learn. It’s not like this person is here to save world,” she said. “Peace Corps volunteers are one more member of the community. They’re not someone who shows up and then leaves, or is only interested in their niche. It’s someone who wants to get to know people, get involved, learn about the culture.”
That desire to learn was what motivated Arnaldo Pérez, from New York, to sign up for the Peace Corps. Costa Rica’s diversity was one of the first things that stood out for Pérez, who will be based in the Caribbean slope town of Guápiles.
“I never thought of Costa Rica as being eclectic place, but there are lots of nationalities who live here that are Tico now,” Pérez said, referring to people of indigenous, Chinese and African decent, among others, who live in Costa Rica.
If Costa Rica’s diversity surprised Pérez, the diversity of the United States seems to have the same impact on his Tico friends. Pérez and Andrea Guerrero, another volunteer with whom The Tico Times spoke, are Dominican- and Mexican-American, respectively. They said the Peace Corps gives them a chance to represent the U.S. as well as their families’ cultures.
“They have this picture of the face of someone who was born in the United States. They see me and say, you look a little brown,” he said, “so I explain I’m descended from the Dominican Republic. It’s an exchange of three different cultures. It’s always interesting.”
Guerrero, who is from Los Angeles and will be based in Los Chiles, Alajuela, had a similar experience. “The first question is, why aren’t you blonde with blue eyes?” she said. “In The United States there is a lot of diversity and a lot of different cultures. I was born in the U.S., I’m Mexican-American, so I represent another culture besides the U.S.”
Currently 143 Peace Corps volunteers are active in Costa Rica, according to the U.S. Embassy in San José. During the last 50 years, more than 3,300 U.S. citizens have served in the Peace Corps here working in community economic development, youth development and teaching English as a second language.
“We’re all learning,” Guerrero said. “Tell me about you and I’ll tell you about me.”