Join us In Costa Rica in May, 2020


Update: The May, 2020 trip is now full. If you are interested in joining us next year, the below information may be helpful. We will follow a similar timeline. 

APPLICATIONS ARE NOW BEING ACCEPTED: The application for the Costa Rica trip has been opened!  Join us on this study abroad adventure through Exploring the Health Care System in Costa Rica hosted by The College of Nursing.  If you are interested in joining our 2020 trip to Costa Rica, please fill out the google form linked here. Details to follow via email. We are looking forward to hearing from you. If you are a Nursing student, the College of Nursing would like to fund one student to join us in Costa Rica who otherwise would not be able to travel due to financial reasons. 

The application for the 2020 program is due January 24, 2020 and the link to the application can be found in the tab above. There are no pre-requisites for this course. Drop off your hard copy in room 201 in the Nursing Sciences Building. Please email Celeste Newcomb at to let her know you dropped off an application.

On the trip, students will learn and see first-hand how health care is delivered in Costa Rica. In addition, students will meet with nurses, physicians, and other providers of care, along with policy makers and administrators, in an effort to learn how Costa Rica is able to achieve impressive health outcomes. The Learning Objective for this embedded program is for students to analyze information obtained on the trip and effectively present to others what they have learned and experienced. A highlight for many students in this program is the opportunity for independent research. In addition to the travel, this course requires class sessions and course work. For 2020, the student price will be $2,499, which includes all student lodging, all food, and transportation to and from the base hotel in San Jose. Price does not include airfare or tuition. Most students obtain some type of support funding.  In 2020, we will hold a spring term one credit course to prepare students. The May term course with an embedded travel component will be 2 credits.

Please note, the official program beings on Monday May 11th but all students should plan on flying in on Sunday May 10th. We will hold a general orientation and review the schedule the evening of May 10th. Please plan to be in Costa Rica by late afternoon on the 10th. The trip ends on Saturday May 16th and students should plan to depart on Sunday the 17th.

You can read what students have to say about the past trip and access the application on our website at

If you have questions about the program, you can email me directly at

Through immersive experience, students learn about Costa Rican health care

Through immersive experience, students learn about Costa Rican health care

Jordan Corley | The Daily Collegian

Mar 13, 2019

A student looks over the Costa Rican jungle during Penn State’s Exploring the Health Care System in Costa Rica program.

Exploring the Health Care system in Costa Rica

Courtesy of Celeste Newcomb

A woman and her husband were brought to tears as Penn State student Paula Tabaschek and her team presented a family in Costa Rica with a wheelchair to help the woman navigate her home after losing both of her legs due to severe diabetes.

This was one of the moments that Tabaschek (senior-biology) said made her realize how much she wanted to be there and impact the community.

“I was shocked by how health care can really impact the overall aspect of a community,” Tabaschek said.

Tabaschek traveled to Costa Rica through Penn State’s Exploring the Health Care System in Costa Rica program, which provides students with the opportunity to earn class credit and travel to Costa Rica while learning about the country’s health care system.

“The program provides a unique opportunity for students to examine some important topics, such as why people live longer in Costa Rica than the United States. How is it that they only spend 7 percent of their GDP on healthcare compared to the 17 percent we spend in the USA,” Celeste Newcomb, a professor in the Smeal College of Business and the College of Nursing said. Newcomb is the co-founder of the program.

The program is currently hosted by the College of Nursing; however, students of all majors and semesters are encouraged to apply. Students from branch campuses may apply, as well.

In total, students earn four credits for completing the Spring and May term courses and traveling to Costa Rica. After being accepted into the program in January, students attend five classes taught by Newcomb where they learn background information about Costa Rica’s health care system.

For the remainder of the semester, students work on their independent research project. Following the end of the spring semester, students depart for the one-week Costa Rica trip portion of the program.

While in Costa Rica, students observe EBAIS clinics. The term is translated in English to mean “Basic Teams of Global Health Care.” They are the first level of health care in Costa Rica.

Tabaschek, a teaching assistant for the course, explained that the country is broken up into multiple regions and within each region there is an area of health. Each EBAIS group is responsible for providing health care within their area of health.

Tabaschek said that within an EBAIS group there are doctors, nurses, secretaries, pharmacologists and ATAPs, which Tabaschek said are basically community health care workers who go from house to house administering vaccines, especially to those who can’t afford health care.

Throughout the duration of the trip, students followed ATAPs around on local home visits and observed their interactions with the community.

This year, there are 13 students traveling to Costa Rica. Those attending include three students from Commonwealth campuses, an adult learner from the World Campus program and nine University Park students representing the College of Nursing, the College of Health and Human Development and the College of Liberal Arts.

Upon completion of this program, Newcomb said multiple students have presented their research in the Penn State Undergraduate Exhibition. Many other students have joined the Peace Corps.

Here’s a look into the immersion experience of three Penn State students

Paula Tabaschek

During her junior year, Tabaschek took the class as a student and traveled to Costa Rica in May 2018.

Tabaschek said she heard about the program through the College of Health and Human Development.

She said she was interested in taking the class because she had been a part of Global Health Brigades and wanted to continue doing public health work.

A group poses during Penn State’s trip to Costa Rica as part of its Exploring the Health Care System in Costa Rica program.

Courtesy of Celeste Newcomb

Tabaschek said she was interested in attending graduate school and obtaining a Ph. D, and believed this opportunity would be a unique experience to discuss during interviews and place on her resume.

“It’s one of those things where you talk about it and it’s a very unique experience because you’re in country, observing patients and hospital care, not sitting in a classroom learning about it,” Tabaschek said.

On Tabaschek’s trip, she said her group followed an ATAP to a family living in a small hut and was able to observe his relationship with the family. Tabaschek said the ATAP walked into the family’s home and told the family he was there to give them vaccinations.

“[The family] was grateful because [they knew] the ATAP was coming to help them,” Tabaschek said.

Afterward, Tabaschek said they visited another house with a well-off family, and the ATAP followed the same protocol. She said she was surprised by this Costa Rican custom because the health care she is used to seeing in the United State is so different.

“This was a very immersive experience,” Tabaschek said, “because we were actually there in the house with the family and watching.”

She was inspired by the influence public health workers can have on the community’s mentality and the respect the community had for the health workers.

Moving forward in the public health field, Tabaschek said she hopes to apply the knowledge and experience she gained from the trip toward her career.

Tabaschek also presented her research project at the undergraduate symposium fair hosted by the Eberly College of Science and continued her research into the summer following her trip with Johns Hopkins University.

Maggie Lee

Maggie Lee participated in the program during her junior year and went to Costa Rica in the summer of 2018.

Lee (senior-nursing and Spanish) said she heard about the program from advertisements through the nursing school.

Lee said her previous study abroad experience was a cultural immersion experience which lasted six weeks. She said she was interested in this program because it was only one week and was health-care based, focusing specifically on the administration aspect of health care.

“In the class we talked about communicable diseases,” Lee said. “When we were in Costa Rica it was interesting to compare their universal health care system to the United States because it’s not universal.”

For her research project, Lee wrote a paper about vaccinations in Costa Rica, touching on subjects such as the policies surrounding a vaccination, the differences in the vaccination schedule compared to the United States, general public opinion and the recent measles outbreak.

While in Costa Rica, Lee said her group visited several hospitals and clinics and went on home visits with the ATAPs.

One of the biggest differences Lee said she noticed between health care in Costa Rica versus health care in the United States was the sense of community present in Costa Rica nursing versus the less personal medical treatment in the United States.

“[The program] allowed me to think about what the universal health care system is,” Lee said. “[I] had never really experienced it before and it made me realize how big an impact a universal health care system could have on the United States population.”

Steve Slaney

Steve Slaney, a Penn State graduate of the Class of 2014, traveled to Costa Rica as a student in the program during his fall 2014 semester and returned to Costa Rica two additional times as a translator with the program.

Slaney (graduate-health policy and administration) currently lives in Costa Rica while volunteering with the Peace Corps.

Slaney said he decided to apply for the program during his extra semester after changing his major halfway through his junior year.

A woman administers vaccines to a child in Costa Rica as part of Penn State’s Exploring the Health Care System in Costa Rica program.

Courtesy of Celeste Newcomb

As a student on the trip, Slaney said he appreciated the first-hand experience of learning how Costa Rica administers their health care.

“To me, experience is one of the most invaluable things,” Slaney said. “It’s priceless.”

Slaney’s research assignment was a report comparing the Costa Rican, Cuban and American health care systems. He said he researched the demographic variables beforehand and found it interesting to witness the cultural aspects in-person during the trip.

“My favorite moments were when we were in the more remote areas and we would go on visits to people’s houses,” Slaney said. “I thought that was really personal and interesting because for people who couldn’t get themselves to facilities, [local providers] came to them.”

Slaney’s group followed local health care providers on the job and observed as they interviewed different families, administered vaccinations and performed health check-ups on children and senior citizens.

Slaney said the community members were accustomed to seeing the health care providers and were gracious enough to let his group observe.

“It put us in an interesting situation because [we were] kind of invading someone else’s home,” Slaney said.

Slaney said the experience was very beneficial to him and opened his eyes up to different aspects of both health care and himself that he never would have known had he not traveled to a foreign country.

“To have an opportunity to do something like this under the umbrella of Penn State is just something that I would recommend to anyone,” Slaney said. “I think that whenever you can combine your academic life with some international exposure and experience, it will make you a better student and a better citizen.”

Minor corrections to article made on April 9, 2019

Music in Costa Rica

College of Nursing Student Kaléi Kowalchik Reflects on ¡Pura vida!

¡Pura vida!, the trademark slogan of Costa Rica, translates to “pure life” in the English language and describes the simplicity of the Costa Rican lifestyle. Pura vida is not just a phrase but rather a feeling found in the center of your heart that is filled with emotion, a positive attitude, and happiness. t I not only learned about the healthcare system but the country and its entirety this past week while studying abroad. Today, however, was the most bittersweet of all—the final goodbye.

As we adventured and trekked through Costa Rica one last time, all of the students tried to ignore the impending future—saying goodbye. First we occupied our minds with Catarata Rio Fortuna, a large waterfall located on a biological reserve in La Fortuna. With each descending step, the sound of the waterfall rushed through our ears providing a soothing melody of water and nature. Swimming, hiking, climbing on rocks—oh my, we spent this cultural immersion activity taking nature’s beauty all in.  During this trip, we learned about the importance of the preservation of nature and its wildlife so others may also have these types of experiences for many years to come. After a long morning of expending energy at Catarata Rio Fortuna, we stopped for lunch at Cafeteria Flory. The fragrant scent of homemade tortillas and pinto gallo mixed perfectly with the warm sunshine as the strumming of a guitar created tones of soul and happiness which danced peacefully through the restaurant. Here we learned about a small family owned luncheon business and the importance of serving authentic Costa Rican food to their customers. Our last cultural visit was spent at the Herpetological Refuge Costa Rica in San José where animal biologists and volunteers spend their time rehabilitating native animals to Costa Rica back into the wild. Walking through the refuge was like taking a stroll through a “mini” rainforest—scarlet macaws squawking  in the background, colorful flowers spread throughout trees so tall and full you can barely see the sun as the sound of trickling water runs in the background. From monkeys, snakes, sloths, and crocodiles—this refuge educated all of us on the uniqueness and importance of each animal to Costa Rica’s ecosystem.

La Fortuna Waterfall

We concluded with a final dinner where we all reminisced on the memories of the trip with our phenomenal tour guides Juan Pablo, Maria, Carola, and Fernando (Chino). While we all left that night with some tears, we realized how this trip has come full circle for all of us. We all came to Costa Rica to explore the healthcare system; however, we all took away so much more from the trip. Collectively, not only were we fortunate enough to learn and understand about Costa Rica but also see it applied in the multiple settings throughout the country as well. While I took away a lot of valuable information from this trip, the most moving piece I finally understand is that anyone can say pura vida; however, it is another thing to feel and understand the true meaning of pura vida—this is simply not obtained until you visit and take the time to enjoy Costa Rica’s beauty and wonder. Until next time Costa Rica–¡pura vida!

Day 5: College of Nursing Student Meghan Hixenbaugh Reflects on the Rainforest, Finding New Medicines and How this Tiny Nation Provides Healthcare for All!

Today we did really cool cultural visits. After the clinic in the morning, we went zip lining at Sky Adventures. The views we saw were absolutely breathtaking. Zip lining allowed us to see Costa Rica from a completely new view. The landscapes were absolutely gorgeous. It was something I will never forget. The zip lining was a little nerve-racking at first because we were so high up, but it was completely worth it to see the beautiful landscapes.
After zip lining, we walked through the rainforest and went on the hanging bridges. This was yet another stunning experience. The hanging bridges were a beautiful way to see the inside aspects of the forest. We could only go 10 people at a time across the bridges for safety reasons. Our bus driver, Chino, was such a great tour guide as we walked through the rainforest. He taught us about the various plant life and animals of the rainforest. For example, I learned that there is a type of tree that has adapted to “move” 3 millimeters in a year to be in areas with more sunlight. We also learned this morning at the Clinic that it is “snake season” in Costa Rica, and as we were on our walk Chino pointed out a baby snake. Chino also did this exercise with the group that I really enjoyed. He asked us to close our eyes and not talk for a minute to just listen to the sounds of the rainforest. This was so nice because I wouldn’t have done on my own. The sounds were really cool to just listen to. We heard the birds, the crickets, and the various other animals of the rain forest. Overall Chino gave us a great tour with lots of information about the wild of the rainforest. We learned that the rainforest actually helps us find new medicines.
After walking through the forest and going on the hanging bridges, we went to the Baldi Hot Springs. These are naturally occurring hot springs from the volcano. There were 25 different hot springs to go to. Some were bath water temperature, while others were too hot to stand in for more than a few minutes. There was a naturally occurring sauna we went into as well. It was really hot and I was so surprised to learn that these can occur naturally. The Baldi hot springs were a nice way to relax after the busy day and week we had. Overall this was a day full of super fun cultural visits. Having the chance to see the tourism side demonstrated how Costa Rica is able to have the health care system they do because they get the money from all the tourists.

Day 4: College of Nursing Student Antonia Corma Discusses Vaccinations

I decided to go on this trip because I felt like this would be a great opportunity for me in my future nursing career.
At first, I was nervous because I was unsure of what exactly I wanted to research or how to go about doing it, but that nervousness has not held me back on this trip. Every day I wake up with excitement to experience and try new things and I can’t wait to learn more. Whether it is trying different food or getting out of my comfort zone to ask questions, this trip has been extremely beneficial and it isn’t over yet!
Today we began our day with a tour of a local clinic, Area de Salud Tilaran, and observed the care that the ATAPs provide to the people of Costa Rica. One of the aspects of care that I am interested in is vaccination. In Costa Rica, vaccines are mandatory and, more importantly, free. There are also campaigns that are done if an outbreak of a certain disease were to occur which provides the people of Costa Rica with the vaccines for free. If they have the vaccine previously, they will receive it again along with any other vaccinations they may not have or are due for.
Once the ATAPs go to the house, they do a number of things, but in relation to vaccines, the Costa Rican’s need to provide them with their vaccination card. Children are provided with books that document all of their information, including their vaccine record. Costa Rican’s can refuse the vaccines, but if that is done the ATAP reports it to someone with higher authority. Once that is done the police get involved along with the Ministry of Health to provide them with the vaccinations since it is mandatory for this country. The only two exceptions as to why someone is not being vaccinated is if they are immunocompromised or for religious reasons.
In the United States, there have been many cases of measles outbreaks due to people not being vaccinated. I believe that vaccinations are so important because those few who can’t receive the vaccinations benefit from the herd immunity. Without the herd immunity, those people along with everyone else are put at a much higher risk of getting the disease. I want to be a pediatric nurse. Therefore, I am extremely interested in how children are cared for in Costa Rica. Vaccinations are such a controversial issue in the United States today, while in Costa Rica it’s the norm.

Day 4: College of Nursing Student Madison Stewart Writes About Assessment of Risk Factors

In the town of Tilaran, we had the chance to follow the ATAPs around a fairly new neighborhood to visit a handful of houses. The job of the ATAPs is to basically make house visits and assess the home, the people, and the environment around the home. They provide vaccines if need be, blood pressure screenings, and patient education.
This form is used by the ATAPS to determine the number of risk factors present. This determines how many follow up visits a patient will have during a calendar year.
One specific thing these ATAPs do is they place the family into a risk category system called the “Family Risk Classification for the Primary Care Program” The risk categories range from 1-3.
1 meaning that the family scored over 25 points based on 9 different classifications. The classifications for risk 1 include things like families that have no forms birth control, young pregnancies, children that are malnourished or anemic, families with a history of drug addictions, alcoholism, or family violence, illiterate parents, families with a one-year-old, or families living in the slums. If a family were to fall into Risk 1 they then would be visited 3 or more times a year based on their needs.
Risk 2 families who score between 15-24 points fall under a list of classifications that consist of having birth control methods, having children between the ages of 7-14 who dropped out of school, having untreated chronic diseases, having teenagers with children, living with a family member who is disabled, living alone over the age of 75, living in a risk area, receiving a pap smear over 2 years ago, or testing positive for TB. Based on these families needs they would be visited 2 times a year.
Families who fall under the Risk 1 category and score 2-14 points have certain classifications like living with a chronic disease which is under control, having the head of the family without an income, having a poor water supply and poor sewage systems, delinquent children, or simply families which do not qualify for Risk 1 or 2. These families would then be visited only once a year.
These ATAPs provide an extremely useful and beneficial service for these families who may not get an opportunity to visit the doctor’s office as much as they would like to. If need be, ATAPs can request emergency services to a family or provide the required vaccinations. Their main goal is the prevention of diseases and illnesses. All services provided by the ATAPs are free of charge through the social security system in Costa Rica.