Kentucky’s State Partnership Program: Costa Rica offers authentic backdrop to language immersion training

Story and photos provided by Maj. Shawn Keller, Kentucky National Guard State Partnership Director

Graduation, 14 Sept 2012, L-R: SSgt Elmer Quijada, Capt Jennifer Nash, CW2 John Radford, Maj Shawn Keller, SSG Pedro Soto

Staff Sgt. Elmer Quijada, Capt. Jennifer Nash, Chief Warrant Officer John Radford, Maj. Shawn Keller and Staff Sgt. Pedro Soto show off their training certificates following two weeks learning the Spanish language in Costa Rica. The training is part of the Kentucky National Guard State Partnership Program.

SAN JOSE, Costa Rica – Geography doesn’t often make the list of favorite subjects in school, but most people in the United States are familiar with Costa Rica.   About the size of West Virginia, this small Central American country has a big reputation as the world leader in eco-tourism; and as a major exporter of produce and coffee to the U.S., it’s hard to walk down the produce aisle or into your local Starbucks without noticing bananas, pineapples or java bearing the “Costa Rica” label.  But in early September, six members of the Kentucky National Guard had a unique opportunity to experience a side of Costa Rica that most tourists never see—by living with a Costa Rican family.

The Kentucky soldiers and airmen were in Costa Rica from 2-15 September participating in a Spanish language and cultural immersion program sponsored by the National Guard’s State Partnership Program (SPP).   Kentucky has partnered with the Republic of Ecuador since 1996, and the Kentucky-Ecuador connection was one of the first State Partnerships in US Southern Command.   The Kentucky National Guard has a number of soldiers and airmen that are fluent in Spanish, but finding individuals with expertise in the nuances of Latin American culture and customs is a more difficult challenge.  Training events like this year’s immersion program are an important tool in building and maintaining the enduring relationships that are a hallmark of the SPP.

Participants for the event were carefully selected from career fields that support the top three military priorities of the Ecuador partnership—aviation operations and maintenance, search and rescue operations and wheeled vehicle maintenance.  The group attended daily classes at the Costa Rica Spanish Institute (COSI) in the capital city of San Jose.  An average day consisted of a four hour group class with an additional hour of one-on-one instruction each afternoon.  The Kentucky group’s level of Spanish varied considerably, ranging from individuals that were raised in bi-lingual homes to others who had little or no exposure to Spanish before the trip.  Although everyone was placed in classes appropriate for their level, even those considered fluent by most standards found the course to be a real challenge.

“COSI is the most intense language training I’ve experienced,” said Staff Sgt. Elmer Quijada, a pararescueman with the 123rd Special Tactics Squadron.  “As a native Spanish speaker, I was surprised how much I learned about the language.  Also, the people and culture of Costa Rica were wonderful, and the overall experience was first class.”

Group photo at Catedral de Los Angeles, L-R: CW2 John Radford, Capt Jennifer Nash, MSgt Russ LeMay, SSG Pedro Soto, SSgt Elmer Quijada, Maj Shawn Keller

Chief Warrant Officer John Radford, Capt. Jennifer Nash, Master Sgt. Russ LeMay, Staff Sgt. Pedro Soto, Staff Sgt. Elmer Quijada and Maj. Shawn Keller at the Catedral de Los Angeles, Cartago, Costa Rica.

Afternoons provided time to decompress from the rigors of conjugating Spanish verbs while experiencing the local sights and sounds of San Jose and spending time with host families.  Each member of the Kentucky team was placed with a Costa Rican family and lived with them for the duration of the trip.  They shared daily meals, activities and conversations with their families, which for those individuals new to Spanish often proved to be the day’s biggest challenge.

“I had no Spanish background whatsoever,” said Chief Warrant Officer Two John Radford, a UH-60 pilot with the Kentucky Army National Guard’s Bravo Co. 2nd Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment.  “I expected a family that spoke some English, but that wasn’t the case at all.  As soon as I arrived, I was given the grand tour of the ‘casa’ (house) in Spanish, at which time I realized I was in serious trouble.”

Radford cites some confusion regarding the operation of the shower head, which was provided to him by his host entirely in Spanish.

“This naturally resulted in three days of ice cold showers and me learning the word “fria” (cold),” he said.   “But in the end, having to learn the language quickly in order to communicate proved to be beneficial and really made the lessons stick.”

In addition to providing formal language courses, COSI sponsored several excursions for the group including visits to San Jose’s famous Mercado Central, the old capitol city of Cartago and it’s 19th century Cathedral and the active volcano Irazu that is located about an hour away from San Jose.  The team also took part in a weekend trip to Puerto Viejo, a small town located on Costa Rica’s Atlantic coast.  The drive to Puerto Viejo provided a unique opportunity to experience the highly variable geography of Costa Rica on roads that meandered through volcanic peaks, cloud forests and coastal jungles.

Capt Jennifer Nash and her Host Family

Capt. Jennifer Nash and her host family during Spanish language immersion training in Costa Rica.

Although Costa Rica is one of the safest countries in Central America, the group had a few unexpected adventures.  A magnitude 7.9 earthquake, centered approximately 80 kilometers northwest of COSI’s San Jose campus, struck Costa Rica’s Pacific coast region on September 5th.   Fortunately those living close to the epicenter suffered few injuries and surprisingly little damage.  Still, it was quite an experience for the Kentucky group, and the first earthquake several of them had experienced.

“We were in the middle of class, and the walls just started rocking back and forth,” said Staff Sgt. Pedro Soto, a vehicle mechanic with the KYNG-J4.  “ It took a few seconds for me to realize that we were actually having an earthquake. It’s just not something I’ve ever experienced in Kentucky.”

In another incident, a member of the group woke up in Puerto Viejo eye-to-eye with a 4-inch jungle scorpion, with which he had apparently been sharing the same bed.  But other than a few shattered nerves, everyone had a memorable experience and returned safely home with a better knowledge of Spanish and a fond appreciation for the rich culture and beautiful landscapes of Costa Rica.

“Living with a family in Costa Rica and attending classes at COSI was an invaluable experience,” said Capt. Jennifer Nash, a C-130 pilot with the 165th Airlift Squadron.  “Best of all, I got to know other members of the Kentucky National Guard and share this experience with them.”

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