Upside Down in Costa Rica
By Catherine Yeh
Twenty-eight year old Marie Clarcq had never hung upside down.
“I was afraid I wasn’t going to be able to do it,” she says, showing the photograph of her zip-lining experience.
Suspended on the zip-line with her legs above her head, knees bent as if sitting, Clarcq’s arms are spread wide like wings. She’s flying through the jungle in Costa Rica. Her blue eyes gleam under the bright red helmet—sheer happiness amid the fear she hid so well.
Clarcq’s experience demonstrates the intangible benefits of study abroad. She sees herself as one of the lucky ones to be exposed to new adventures and immersed, maybe even suspended, in another culture. Although she made her study abroad arrangements independently, her journey and cultural curiosity mesh perfectly with the School of Social Work’s commitment to global education and encouraging diverse international experiences for its students.
“I have really been trying to encourage students to participate in study abroad—especially in our globalized world,” says Diane Elze, MSW Program Director. “It broadens the lens that we look through. It can also broaden our understanding of how power and privilege manifest themselves in different places.”
Clarcq, a proud 2011 graduate of the MSW program, now recognizes community as global, reaching beyond her home near Rochester, N.Y. She was hesitant at first: hesitant to zip-line, but mostly hesitant to participate in this immersion program. This overwhelming anxiety is common among students who challenge themselves in another culture by taking the plunge. It’s fear of the unknown. She had never hung upside down; she’d never had ceviche, a popular raw seafood dish in Central and South America; she had never been enriched by another culture to this degree. But she did it all.
For two weeks in Grecia, Costa Rica, Clarcq immersed herself in Spanish language classes and culture. She lived with the Ticas, a local family who didn’t speak much English, which forced her to use all her resources to communicate. Every day she took meals with the Ticas and was delighted how welcoming they were, encouraging her to fully experience their culture, and cherished being called “hermana” (sister) by the children. “It was an important realization that you can get close to people despite a huge difference between you,” Clarcq observes.
Clarcq engaged in a daily four hour “Spanish only” class in addition to programs allowing her to visit local agencies for women and children. She spent time in a fenced community for Nicaraguan immigrants where children stared at them. Some kids even ran up to touch their hands. A few called her and others in the group “gringa,” a somewhat derogatory word for “foreigner.” They were right. She was completely out of her comfort zone because she really was a foreigner.
Clarcq shows the photo of her with five children from that site visit. A surprised and awkward smile paints her face while the kids playfully pinch her. “Maybe that was why they were pinching me—because my skin was so white!”
Clarcq often reflects on her journey to Costa Rica, incorporating those observations and global challenges into her career path. She’s fulfilled the mission of the School of Social Work: to educate future social workers to be responsive in communities—nationally and globally.
Shirley Reiser, (MSW ’76) Clarcq’s academic advisor, recognizes Clarcq’s cosmopolitan mentality. “Marie sees herself as a citizen of the world, with responsibility to the world.”