When I was 17, fresh out of high school and raring to go, Costa Rica was just one of about 50 different countries I wanted to visit. I grew up in a privileged suburb of Boston and was expected to head off to college alongside the rest of my graduating class. At the time, it wasn’t quite as fashionable to spend a year abroad. It was the kind of choice kids made who hadn’t applied to college, couldn’t pay for it, or otherwise didn’t have much direction. Even though I lived in a fancy suburb, my family had fallen on some tough times and I suddenly found myself in the “couldn’t pay for it” college category. I look back now and can’t understand how anyone pays for college but at the time it was a real blow. After busting my hump for four years with a singular focus—making high honor roll every semester, doing a bazillion extra-curriculars, and then getting into my top choice school—I was piping mad that money was holding me back. I was completely unable to put my situation in perspective. Never mind the millions of children in the world who get zero education, I deserved college. It was my right!
So there I was, sitting on my bed, sorting through a huge pile of volunteer abroad brochures. Even then I was enjoying extreme privilege: I might not have had the money to go to a $40,000/year school, but my parents could afford to shell out the several thousand it would take to get me somewhere and put me up for a year (or maybe they couldn’t and just really wanted to get rid of Sir-Mopes-A-Lot). Either way, I was a real sight, sitting there feeling sorry for myself, morosely flipping through one brightly-colored brochure after another, hoping one would stick.
One did. I finally settled on a volunteer teaching opportunity at the not-for-profit Cloud Forest School in Monteverde, Costa Rica. The kids ranged in age from 5 to 16, only a year younger than I was, and they were all blindingly bright—bilingual, environmentally aware, and excited about growing up to change the world. While there were a few white kids, mostly the children of American teachers at the school, the vast majority were local children from working families. I taught math and English but was learning much more than I was teaching—about appreciating formal education but also embracing creative learning, empathy, a wonder for the natural world, and a deep commitment to developing holistic social and ethical intelligence for rational problem-solving.
The Monteverde Cloud Forest is a unique and imperiled ecosystem and the town is largely supported by eco-tourism. The Cloud Forest School makes it its mission to teach local children about the importance of keeping their forest healthy, protecting it from development or tourism damage, and imagining creative solutions to problems of sustainability. The kids grow up with a love for their forest and a responsibility for keeping it safe. How different that was from my own competition-driven education. I left understanding how absurd it was to think of education as an end in itself. Surely there are many volunteer programs out there for people in greater immediate danger and I still feel as though I could have spent that year doing more to help those in dire straits. But the fact remains that I was changed fundamentally by the Cloud Forest School—by its mission and its children—and I returned feeling a greater sense of hope and purpose for myself and the planet. These days, that’s something every 17-year-old needs.