One of the most common serious accidents in all study abroad programs results from car accidents (car crashes or being hit by a vehicle while walking). Costa Rica has one of the highest per capita death rates from traffic fatalities in the world. This is due to the following factors:
- Too many badly maintained cars running on poorly maintained roads.
- Too many inexperienced drivers with no formal training in driver’s education.
- Too few traffic police to sanction those who violate traffic laws.
Our students are expressly forbidden to rent cars, to drive cars, or to ride in cars with people who are not members of our staff or are not home stay families. The exceptions are publicly certified and licensed bus and taxi services. They are further prohibited from using bicycles or motorbikes. All extra transportation contracted by ICADS is checked for qualification of drivers, condition of vehicles, and insurance. We occasionally grant special permission to students working on public health projects in the countryside to ride as passengers while making home visits. This is how the visits are carried out in rural areas where there is little traffic or risk of collisions. The use of bicycles is permitted under very special circumstances and on a case-by-case basis.
These transportation rules significantly minimize the odds of involvement in traffic accidents. They also provide the extra benefit of preventing students from getting lost or disoriented, or being alone in a vehicle at anytime during the day or night where a mechanical failure could leave them vulnerable to passers-by. Students are fully informed about the traffic situation and are cautioned, even about the way they must cross streets.
**The no driving rule does not apply to non-university students in the Intensive Spanish Program. These students tend to be older and prefer to assess for themselves whether or not to “risk it” on the road.
Many Costa Rican beaches have riptides. Available statistics place the number of drowning deaths at approximately 250 people each year. Most victims are foreigners. Costa Ricans generally understand and heed the risks while many visitors do not. Riptides, or rip currents, can quickly sweep even the best swimmers out to sea. Riptides are not visible from the water’s surface so they cannot be easily detected.
The ocean waters are always emerald green, warm and inviting. While it is futile to try to prohibit swimming at beaches that are among some of the most beautiful in the world, we have found that we can drastically reduce the risk of drowning by giving students a list of beaches we know to be safe and asking them to swim only there. We educate students about riptides and discuss what to do if caught in a riptide.
We also ask students to never swim alone, never to swim after consuming any alcoholic beverages, and to assume that all ocean waters, even in tranquil bays and inlets, can be potentially dangerous. Students are required to sign-out each weekend they are away. They must tell us where they are going. We review the sign-out sheet and selectively reinforce specific safety information regarding their particular destination.
OTHER POTENTIAL HAZARDS
- Stepping into holes in sidewalks. We recommend closed-toed shoes for movement around both city and countryside activities.
- Slipping and sliding on algae-covered sidewalks during the rainy season. Stay away from smooth-soled shoes and flip-flops.
- Minor falls while hiking. Students are not allowed to hike in wilderness areas without a trained guide. This protects against major falls or getting lost in the wilderness.
- These last few things are mentioned because an injury as minor as a sprain can negatively affect range of movement and limit one’s ability to benefit from the study experience.
ICADS has fully ready evacuation plans should students ever need to be evacuated from Nicaragua or Costa Rica for any reason. When hurricane Mitch hit Nicaragua in 1998, our combined staff in Costa Rica and Nicaragua was able to evacuate all eleven students there safely within 48 hours. This was at least two days sooner than the United States Embassy was able to evacuate any other US citizen.
As in all countries in the world, there are many factors and situations in daily life which are out of the control of us all, irrespective of country, but to the extent that we can prevent and foresee potentially dangerous situations, we work very hard to inform, educate and mitigate against risk.
POSSIBLE ILLNESSES IN COSTA RICA
Costa Rica is a country with high health standards. The most common maladies students suffer are sunburns, minor skin allergies and infected insect bites. Our host families provide a balanced healthy diet which conforms to the particular dietary needs of each student whether she/he is vegan, vegetarian, or on a health restricted diet. We have never had a student become ill from anything eaten in his or her own home.
Students become more at risk for intestinal infections while traveling. They are carefully instructed never to buy food sold on the street or in large outdoor markets where sanitation facilities for keeping food clean are not readily available. They are discouraged from drinking tap water in small towns without good water purifying systems and are encouraged to carry bottled water with them at all times while away from San Jose.
Students are also given a simple formula to treat their own mild cases of diarrhea, should they occur. If the diarrhea should persist for more than 24 hours, students are taken to a doctor or clinic to be examined for any possible infection. An ICADS staff member always accompanies students who need medical attention (unless the student prefers to go alone). The staff member serves as a support to the student and will serve as translator if necessary. ICADS uses the two best private hospital clinics in Costa Rica. Many, but not all, doctors in Costa Rica speak English.
We take a number of steps to minimize the likelihood of any of these potential risks. We are proud of our exemplary safety record, and reserve the right to dismiss from its programs any student who willfully violates our rules regarding safety and health.
We realize that it is often difficult to have a loved one travelling far away from home, and we know that it takes a lot of trust in both the student, and in ICADS to support the student in his or her adventures and learning experiences. We continually work to do all we can to deserve your trust.
When we do our jobs well, our students do not tend to feel oppressed or inhibited by the rules we ask them to follow. The idea is to allow our students, irrespective of program, to get out and experience Central America for themselves – to learn and to grow – while also staying safe.
We are available and willing to address any questions and concerns you may have regarding our programs or policies. We remain continually open to feedback about how we might improve any aspect of our programs.
Anthony B. Chamberlain, Ph.D.
Participants in all programs are provided with an identity card, which provides emergency contact information, including the host family’s physical location and the home telephone numbers and those of at least two ICADS staff members. The cards are designed so that even a student with little Spanish can point out to any taxi driver his or her desired location. This minimizes the risk of students getting lost, should they find themselves in unfamiliar areas. Students can always reach us at any hour of the day or night.
During the first week of the semester we spend a significant amount of time discussing health and safety regulations to help keep our students safe. All semester students are given additional workshops on personal security as well as a workshop on sexual harassment and the prevention of sexual assaults. Rules are written down, handed out and discussed, first, at the initial orientation meetings at the beginning of the term, and again, after the initial four week period when students are preparing to move to their new families and sites in either Costa Rica or Nicaragua.
We have found that by educating our students as thoroughly as possible regarding all possible risks within each of the above categories, and combining this education with careful monitoring, we have successfully managed to significantly reduce their risk. Much of the credit goes to the students themselves. Our students tend to be serious, intellectually rigorous, goal-directed adults who understand that any security plan depends on their willingness to trust our judgment and follow the rules.