Observing, learning, and connecting in Costa Rica

Master of Professional Studies in Integrated Behavioral Health students Caitlin Kerber and Rachelann Anderson spoke to us about their time absorbing Costa Rican culture and learning about their social services.

Caitlin (Caitie) Kerber and Rachelann (Ray) Anderson were motivated to go to Costa Rica by the desire to expand their knowledge base of and experiences with international populations and societies. What they discovered is that we are often more alike than not, that individual ups and downs are truly universal.

IBH students with Costa Rica flag

“Costa Rica has some of the same problems the US does when it comes to alcohol and drug abuse,” Kerber says.

“Despite location, human beings are all the same,” Anderson adds. “We all have struggles and triumphs, and in the end, we all want to live a happy and healthy life.”

Site Visits

The students, who earned one credit toward their degree requirements, got to visit several facilities, including Bajo Tejares, a community center in a refugee neighborhood, and Musade, a domestic violence resource for women.

One of their most educational visits occurred at FuncaVida, a therapy center for cancer survivors and their families. “It is an incredible organization,” Anderson says.

Kerber and another IBH student, Emily Hedberg, spent a day there bagging a month-long food supply for 90 families affected by cancer. “By the time we were done we were exhausted and covered in flour, but it felt great!”

The staff includes a psychologist, a physical therapist, and a secretary. They offer individual and group therapy, outings and activities, monthly food rationings, cancer education, and volunteering in the community.

“We met with the therapist who has been working there since 2013. She said that everyone who has joined the organization has stayed with it. She said that working there is one of the most rewarding experiences in her life, and no matter how much or how little she is paid, she will continue to work there.”

Caitlin Kerber at FuncaVida packing food

The group also stopped at La Hogarcita, an orphanage in Palmeras. “We learned that the orphans are never there because of familial death, but because of domestic violence or drug and alcohol issues,” Kerber says. “I also thought it was interesting that a psychologist, who the children treat like their Tio (uncle), laughs and plays with them during his visit. In fact, the women who run the orphanage and the volunteers are known to the kids as Tias and Tios (aunts and uncles).”

On another outing, IBH students met with the social worker at IAFA (Instituto Sobre Alcoholismo y Farmacodependencia), a government substance abuse treatment program with two core objectives: treatment and prevention.

Their liaison explained how much of the substance abuse prevention is done in the schools. They learned about the organization’s methodologies, which they found to be similar to the US, in that they use motivational interviewing in conjunction with cognitive behavior therapy.

A few of them also visited the local elementary school in Bajo Tejares, where they worked with other college students from the University of Costa Rica. Anderson helped the kids create and paint colorful masks. “All the kids got very into it and were not afraid to ask for help. It was amazing to see the creativity come flowing out of these kids. It was an absolute blast!”

Down Time

Most mornings, the group started their day with an energizing hike up the mountains to take in the spectacular views. They would often work on their papers before either a site visit or an excursion into a town or rainforest.

One memorable afternoon was spent on a four-hour catamaran ride filled with snorkeling, swimming, diving, eating local food, and looking for dolphins. They even got to take salsa and Zumba lessons, which left everyone sweaty and exhilarated.

Of course, one of the highlights of the trip was the delicious food. They savored homemade meals of salads, steamed vegetables, rice, taquitos, cabbage, mashed potatoes, and refried beans.


“I can honestly say I learned a ton on this trip,” says Anderson. “Costa Rica has a very rich and family-oriented culture, and it can be seen in the way their communities work. Culture impacts communication styles and values, and learning that will be something I carry with me into my career. I truly feel that all people are inherently good. I think that going into the counseling field, this philosophy will help me connect with many different individuals.”

Kerber agrees. “Costa Rica was an amazing place. The culture as a whole was welcoming and caring.”


Top photo: Rachelann Anderson, Ann Becher-Ingwalson, Liz Skweres, Emily Hedberg, Caitlin Kerber, Jade Hanzalik
Middle photo: Caitlin Kerber preparing bags of food at FuncaVida