ITI junior Clara Smith found confidence and fulfillment in her study abroad experience in Costa Rica

Each winter for the past 10 years, the Pura Vida Study Abroad program takes 15 to 20 students from a wide range of disciplines to Costa Rica. During the two-week stay, they put what they’ve been learning in their programs to work on a project for a local organization, advising on facilities upgrades as well as operations management. Past projects include proposals for a woman’s cancer recovery center, a senior citizen’s home, and a disability services provider.

Clara Smith sits at her laptop smiling at the camera
Clara working on the tech plan for the center

This January’s project was to develop a plan for an upgrade of the surgery facility for the Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center. The team was made up of students from construction management, health services management, integrated behavioral health, biology, and business, among others. As the only student from CCAPS’s Information Technology Infrastructure program, Clara Smith was a little apprehensive about her relative inexperience, and she questioned her ability to contribute to the project. “I felt like I had barely started in my program, like I really don’t know anything yet. I didn’t have anyone to back me up so I had to think and lead on the IT stuff and be self-sufficient.”

The group was led by College of Continuing and Professional Studies’ (CCAPS) Construction Management Faculty Director Peter Hilger and Health Services Management Faculty Director Frances Fernandez. “Following the tour of the facility, we interviewed the founders and some volunteers extensively, gaining insight into what was needed to make their project successful,” said Hilger. “But it wasn’t all about the project. Clara took in all the cultural immersion this adventure has to offer, and did so with interest.”

Moving from Paper to Digital Record Keeping

Through interviews with staff and volunteers, Clara discovered that the center didn’t really have any technology infrastructure. The center is operated by an older couple in their seventies with little technological know-how. They told Clara they didn’t have any computers because there wasn’t anyone to teach them how to use them. Her first recommendation was a specific type of desktop computer that would help them with the type of work they would need to do on it, such as keeping medical records, which are currently all on paper.

She also learned that, in addition to rescuing injured wild animals—sloths, iguana, parrots, monkeys—Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center also operates as a kind of youth hostel, charging a small fee to volunteers to live and work at the center. They had an accountant who came in every few months to help them with their books, and it was only during those quarterly visits that they understood where they were with their budget. Clara proposed they purchase QuickBooks to manage their revenue and expenses and keep track of it all in real time.

The group goes whitewater rafting in Costa Rica
Students from CCAPS, CBS, and Carlson about to go whitewater rafting on the Rio Balsa.

Her third recommendation was for them to start using Google products, especially Google Calendar. One of the maintenance crew told Clara that two conflicting events had been scheduled at the same time in the same area. “He had scheduled the sewage containers to be emptied, which happened to be in the same part of the facility as a visit by a group of five-year-olds. He said he would have done that on a different day if everyone had been working off the same calendar.”

When she presented her proposal to the center owners, they were pleasantly surprised to find out how little it would cost them to implement the three recommendations. “I figured out that it would cost $37 a month for the three solutions. Volunteers pay $35 a night to stay, so they felt they could cover that cost. One thing I love about IT is that you can do so much with so little,” she says.

Clara Smith stands in front of the group and presents her proposal
Clara presenting her recommendations

“My proposal included examples and links for the type of computer I thought they needed, and steps and a timeline for implementation,” said Clara. “I also learned from the biology student, who was staying and working at the center, that there wasn’t always enough work to keep all the volunteers busy, so I suggested that they seek out volunteers with tech skills to help them implement and maintain the new technology. Some of the daily tasks could be to update electronic records or teach the owners how to use the computer.”

“I cannot say enough good things about Clara and her contribution to the project,” says Hilger.  “Of all the suggestions made to the founders, hers are the most likely to be implemented for their sheer practicality and relative simplicity. She made a difference.”

Marrying Two Passions: Managing Data and Protecting the Environment

As a junior in the ITI program, Clara is considering following the data management track. “I want to work in industrial IT. Specifically with resource management, renewable energy, wastewater management, something like that. I really like databases and servers and networks. I also care about the environment. I just want to marry those two passions together.”

Clara said the study abroad experience was eye-opening. “It taught me that sometimes you’re gonna be the only person in the room who can fix something. You’ll have to trust in yourself. I also learned that what I think of as common knowledge is definitely not common knowledge for everybody, so exposure to tools that are very routine to me, like Google Calendar, can really help someone who's not as familiar with them. It makes me feel good knowing that I was able to use my passion to help someone. It reminded me why I want to go into this, why I love sharing technology with people. The experience made me more confident that I can do it in my career.”

Read more about the Pura Vida Study Abroad program.

Clara Smith is a recipient of the Karen L. Larson Legacy Scholarship