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Pedro Morales’ Inspiring Journey from Cabecar Territory to NASA

I have met many teachers in Costa Rica and quite a few of them have inspired me in different ways. One of these teachers is Pedro Morales who comes from the Cabecar indigenous territory where he teaches English at the Uluk Kicha high school. I had the pleasure of meeting Pedro at an English teachers conference at TEC Costa Rica back in 2019 and to visit his school in December 2021 for workshops about the book To the Stars: Costa Rica in NASA.

Pedro’s school was built by NGO Raleigh International with the support of the local community and is nestled deep in a mountainous rainforest and relies on intermittent solar power for electricity. The crystal-clear night skies over Pedro’s school allowed me an amazing view of the International Space Station flying right above along with more shooting stars than I can remember.

Pedro recently returned from a pioneering solo mission that had not been attempted by anyone in his community before. He took part in the annual Space Exploration Educators Conference at Space Center Houston (SEEC). The purpose of this conference is to inform and inspire teachers about NASA’s latest activities and give them valuable tools to use with their students. It is a great setting to make space friends and gain user friendly access to NASA.

At SEEC it is not unusual to run into the astronauts, engineers and scientists who work across the street at Johnson Space Center. It’s the place where NASA dreams get kickstarted and Pedro Morales decided this was the right place for him. I caught up with Pedro after his return journey from Houston, the last leg of his journey home was a two-hour hike. That length of hike is pretty standard in the Cabecar territory. Many of Pedro’s students walk that far to go to and from school every day.

Please tell us something about yourself and your childhood.

Well, I grew up in a small indigenous community called Alto Pacuare which is part of Turrialba. I spent all of my childhood in grandpa’s house helping him manage the farm. It was a sweet time growing up with grandpa. He did not have any chance to send me to school because there was no nearby school at that time.

So, I did not have the chance to attend primary school but somehow, he had the idea that we needed to study, and he worked hard to motivate us to study even on our own and never give up. I began homeschooling and learned how to write and read with little help. I had no opportunity to attend primary school or high school, but I had the great interest to figure things out. I was full of energy and ideas about the future. I wanted to do things differently, change my neighbor’s worldview.

I am not sure, from whom I inherited this idea, but I always thought about the future, going abroad to explore the world, even with my limited access to opportunity. That was not any limit to me because I was so sure that I could change things. So, later when I was in my twenties some people from the United States came in and established a small ecotourism industry and that was the first time I heard the English language. I looked at the possibility of having contact with them.

One day, I met an old American man on the road and told him in my broken Spanish that I wanted to learn English. I remember he said “Yes, come to my house next Wednesday.” That was like the starting point for me because the next Wednesday I went to his house understanding nothing, but I was determined that I wanted to learn and speak that language.

They were so kind and supported me at every stage, so I took it as my school because I wanted to figure things out and discover what was happening in other cultures. So, I worked hard to pick up some basic vocabulary but many times I felt the sense of giving up. However, I tried to stay on track and that is how I learned English but after that I went to university to major in teaching English as a Foreign Language.

Please tell us about the school and community you work in.

Well, it is a small, remote school located in a community called Uluk Kicha. This is my first job as a teacher and I enjoy working with kids. It gives me the opportunity to interact with young learners.

All of the students are indigenous people, so it is fun because I have the opportunity to interact with young students who are really energetic and many of them have the same ideas and curiosity about what is going on outside of the community.

I think these kids have the same ideas that I had when I was young, that we should go out and try to explore.

What are some of the biggest challenges and triumphs you have experienced as a teacher?

There are many challenges that I have faced while being a teacher. I think the most difficult challenge that I have faced is how to set up my own space and build up my teaching style. When I arrived to work at school I was new coming from outside of the MEP system so I had no friends and no one knew me.

This was like the first step I had to figure out because I wanted to change the old teaching model that has been applied in local schools for years. So, I had to think deeply about how to introduce my ideas into students’ minds and how to create this new method and change the way young people and parents see education.

So, I started looking for help and talked to others to come to school to give workshops with students, talk to them about education, exploring the world, to stay out of their comfort zone and show to them the world is so small and there are plenty of opportunities. Soon after, all students were so eager to learn, and they expressed their motivation and readiness to take the next step.

Today, I have sent them to participate in different internship and volunteer programs which created enormous impact in students’ life. After all of this I feel so satisfied.

When did you start becoming interested in space?

I am not sure about exactly when. I remember having heard about Dr. Franklin Chang for many years, probably when I was a kid. However, I always dreamed of going to NASA even though I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I understood it was about space. In 2019, when I attended the TEC English Teachers Conference in Cartago, I had the chance to talk to you (Bruce Callow) and bought your book. From that point on I felt that going to NASA was a real thing.

I remember once I finished reading your book I decided that I could be involved in the world of space. So I went straight to my classroom and started talking to students about going to space and exploring opportunities that can become real for them. I started talking to them about people who have been in space or are involved in the space community.

I felt like this was something I could make real. Then, you went to a workshop in my school and that was like a triple bonus because it was something students had never seen in their life.

I remember them saying, “Teacher, whatever you do we do because we want to go where you go.” The reason to go to the Space Educators Education Conference (SEEC) was to bring more information to my students and to show them everything is possible.

Please tell us about your experience at the space conference. Was this your first trip outside Costa Rica?

Yes, it was.. Well, there were many experiences that I can share with you.. However, the most difficult thing for me was the planning for the trip. I had never done these things before going to the Space Center, such as submitting the right documents that included my passport, visa application, going to the US Embassy, registration for the conference, booking the flight, getting a permission letter from my employer and so on.

I remember all these processes really drained me many times but in the end it was worth it. I had to stay highly motivated and psychologically prepared because it was a consuming time. Once I arrived at SEEC I felt relieved because I really enjoyed the conference. SEEC members took care of me, and I felt like everyone was looking out for me.

If I got lost in the conference there were people helping me out, walking with me, guiding me to the right session or even showing me what’s next in the agenda.

How do you plan to use your SEEC experience with your students?

Well, SEEC opened for me an opportunity to gain knowledge that I can use to help students in many different angles. I was one teacher before going to SEEC and another teacher after coming from SEEC. I plan to use all the experiences from SEEC in my classroom in many ways. For example I can talk to students about how to create a mind set for the future and embrace his/her own dream.

I can create activities using knowledge that I learned from SEEC. I can give them ideas about the future. I can also help them to set higher expectations once they finish high school. I believe SEEC opened my eyes and gave me knowledge that I can apply to help students not only here in this school but also in the whole community.

Any other thoughts you would like to share with readers?

I think we should never give up pursuing our dream. Pursuing our dreams sometimes may be taxing but we should work on them. Always surround yourself with people who have the same idea as yours or at least who can help you to reach your goal. Another good thing is reading about those people who achieved higher and the steps or challenges they have faced in their lives. Thank you!

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