Costa Rican Student Spends a Season at the St. Croix

International internship brings together national parks and people.




3 minute read

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The average low temperature in November in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, is 65 degrees. It does not snow. Headlines were made in 2006 when the temperature dipped to 54 degrees.

The city is home to some 300,000 people. One of them is 18-year-old Melissa Garcia, who has spent the last two months in Minnesota as an intern at the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway.

She was here for the long, luxurious autumn, when she rode on her first pontoon boat and paddled a kayak for the first time. And she has been here for the abrupt onset of winter, with the sudden snow and biting temperatures. And she’s still smiling.

Sister park people

Costa Rica and the St. Croix River region may be two very different places weather-wise, but they are connected in a couple key ways. One of them is the birds that migrate back and forth. As Garcia was flying to Minnesota in early October, countless warblers, thrushes, wrens and other species were headed the other way for the winter.

The other connection is the Sister Park agreement signed last year by the National Park units of the upper Midwest, led by Saint Croix Riverway superintendent Chris Stein, and the Costa Rican national parks on the Osa Peninsula, a cluster of wild parks on the country’s Pacific coast. The international relationship was inspired by the birds and is meant to foster communication, collaboration, and conservation of special places. It also brought Garcia to St. Croix Falls.

Garcia’s internship – made possible by support from local Rotary chapters and members – has included staying with host families, working with Jean Van Tatenhove, Riverway Visual Information Specialist, exploring the St. Croix River, and taking in her first hockey game – the Gophers against Duluth’s Bulldogs.

She speaks happily of the river, the new adventures, the learning and professional experience, the direction she sees her life going. But most of all, she talks about the people. She talks about host parents that became “important” to her, of new brothers.

“I will take home the memories of the people. I was scared to come to another country on my own, but I have met amazing people, I have made friends working in a real work environment,” Garcia says.

Natural connections

Costa Rica not only has a more forgiving climate in November, it is world renowned for its natural resources. The country has been an global leader in preserving nature and building an economy based on ecotourism. Garcia’s family enjoys camping and beaches and mountains on vacations – Costa Rica is a small country with a lot of coast and a lot of mountains. Yet, she says St. Croix River Country is “one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been.”

She joined National Park Service staff for a kayak trip from Highway 70 to County Road O landing, complete with a bald eagle sighting, which she said was very cool because it’s America’s national bird and, like many folks every time they see one, surprised her because it was so big. Collecting fallen leaves floating on the surface, she dipped her hands repeatedly into the cold October water. She smiled as she talked about the silence and peace.

Garcia is a graphic design student at CEDES Don Bosco, a technical high school in San José. The National Park Service in St. Croix Falls is giving her an opportunity to use skills she has been studying at Don Bosco in a real-world environment. Her primary project has been designing a bilingual Junior Ranger booklet focused on the sister parks that will be used in both the Osa Peninsula and the St. Croix. The work has included collaborating with 40 people in two countries. Garcia says it has helped improve her English quickly, since the language she had been taught previously was mostly technical, and now she needed to communicate on a higher level.

“My English is going to help a lot in Costa Rica,” she says.

The Park Service’s Van Tatenhove says the effort will be worth it once the booklet is published. “When I was in Costa Rica in July, I brought a Junior Ranger book, and they were very interested in using it as a tool to reach out to communities near the parks,” she says.

Wild work

For her part, Garcia is newly interested in pursuing a career in conservation. While most of her fellow seniors hope to land jobs at businesses in San José, she now wants to put her talents to work for the cause of conservation.

“I’m starting to believe we have a natural treasure in Costa Rica, and a lot of people in the city forget we have a place full of beautiful stuff, we do not appreciate that,” she says. “Having this internship is helping me know what I want to do working to protect nature. I’d really like to help somehow in Costa Rica.”

The Junior Ranger booklet she has produced will hopefully be the first of a few bilingual publications the Park Service and the Costa Rican government will partner on. Garcia is the first international intern at the Saint Croix National Scenic Riverway, and the first student Don Bosco high school to do an internship abroad, but there are already plans to try it again.

After two months at the National Park Service, Garcia will spend December at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis. She’ll stay with a third host family, and doubtless find more welcoming new friends, and hopefully make her first snowman.


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Costa Rican Student Spends a Season at the St. Croix