An event that Grunder was invited to take part in while there
included a spelling bee and it was evident she enjoyed that
experience. “While we were there, there were two nationwide events
going on. They had a spelling bee sponsored by the Peace Corps in
English. So, many of us were asked to help the students there
practice for the English spelling bee and that was really fun. I got
invited to go to another school and moderated the spelling bee. I
got to work with the Peace Corps and that was really fun.”
This was all part of the English Celebration Day, which included the
spelling bee, a speech competition, a fashion show and a lip-sync
competition, all put on by the students and all in English, Grunder
“While we were there our school also had their annual Arts Fair.
Part of the chaos of the school schedule was due to this. I kind of
equate it to our Homecoming Week when schedules are off and we are
interrupted,” said Grunder.
“Many of the students who were in our group were also part of a
dance presentation. They were doing a traditional folklore dance and
they practiced forever and had a professional choreographer come in.
"Of course, they had a band come in a play heavy metal American
music. They love their American music there. It’s a big deal.
"A lot of the people that speak English there very well are
self-taught. They learn their English from television, YouTube,
music and movies. Some of them speak so beautifully.”
Unfortunately the MPHS students missed the big day of the Arts Fair
because the American kids went ziplining that day. “We were bummed
that we were not there because we watched them practice for a week.
But we got to see some video.” Grunder added that is was a
competition, too, with the students advancing to regionals and
The food was a hit
“The food was great and nobody complained about it. Everybody loved
it,” said Grunder.
School cafeterias have to abide by a national law that requires all
food served to be fresh. Grunder added, “Unbelievably, it works. The
ladies actually cook. It’s restaurant quality and colorful plates
Primarily the staple food in Costa Rica is pinto gallo. Pinto gallo
is rice and beans, but it’s made a little differently than other
Latin American countries. For breakfast you will have pinto gallo
with eggs and cheese. Where we were at there was a lot of cheese and
a lot of dairy farms.”
The students also ate some tortillas and a lot of plantains,
according to Grunder. “If there is one thing that I know a lot of
the kids want to eat coming back, and that is a lot of plantains. A
plantain is a banana that is not sweet. They just look like green
bananas but they are prepared in a lot of ways. Sometimes they mash
them, fry them or just serve them as a side dish,” she said.
“Of course the fruit there is great. They grow a lot of pineapple in
Costa Rica. We got to eat a lot of really good pineapple. They grow
a lot of watermelon there.
We did try a lot of new fruit, like mamon.
[See YouTube video -
They look like a miniature lime, but you bite the skin, pop the top
off and inside is a big seed with a grape coating on it and you peel
it off and chew it like gum. It’s the coolest experience.
Beans and rice are popular with every meal but it’s not like that’s
all there is. When you look at a plate there’s beans and rice, but
then there’s beautifully bright vegetables, fruit, meat, you know
everything. Potato salad is a big thing there, too.”
The meat of Costa Rica consists of beef, pork and chicken, just like
the United States, said Grunder.
Another similarity with the U.S., is chain restaurants like
McDonald’s and Pizza Hut. Grunder, a self-proclaimed foodie, was
particularly fond of the McDonald’s in Costa Rica, which featured an
ice cream store. “Their McDonald’s had a separate ice cream store
and I said, “We need that!”
The group also really enjoyed the tropical drinks offered by the
small Central American country. “Drinks were great. A lot of the
drinks were tropical coconut, mango and papaya drinks. Some of the
kids really fell in love with Costa Rican candy. The food was not a
Nor was how often you eat the food a problem. “Costa Ricans eat four
times a day,” said Grunder. “Breakfast, lunch, merienda and dinner.”
She explained that merienda was around 4:00 p.m. and that featured a
snack that was usually coffee, cookies and pastries. The Costa
Ricans also eat a late dinner, usually around 9:00 p.m. “A couple of
the kids, like Peyton, had professional chefs as mothers and they
really liked that,” she added.
Getting a picture of what life is like in Costa Rica
Even though the students traveled to Costa Rica during June, this
time right now is winter for the Central American country. Grunder
said the temperatures ranged in the low to mid 70s where they were
located in the mountains. Not bad for a winter in Costa Rica.
Because of the moderate temperatures and rainy weather, no one had a
problem sleeping, she said. “It was perfect sleeping weather.
Although, it did get dark early in the mountains. And living in the
mountains was like living in the clouds.
When we would go on excursions during the day, just 30 minutes down
the mountain the weather was completely different. Hot, humid, and
difficult to breathe,” Grunder said.
“Costa Rica is by no means a third world country. It’s a very modern
country,” she noted. All the families the students stayed with were
middle-class and everyone had a nice house and two cars.
“Biking is a big thing there, too, and in the morning moms would be
walking and hiking in their Nike shoes. WiFi was accessible. It was
good. It was not difficult to adjust to,” she said.
Students in Costa Rica also go to college and have dreams just like
the American kids. “English is very important to the Costa Ricans in
order for them to advance,” said Grunder.
"As Ben said, you really have to be self-motivated to want to do
well in school. There are a lot of things in place for you to not do
so well," Grunder said.
Nonetheless, family goals and student goals are the same as those of
the U.S. students.
Costa Rica does not have a military, either, so that is not an
option for young adults, but they do have a police force and a fire
department. Grunder also mentioned, “They are up and coming in
software development, so there are opportunities there, too.”
Grunder said, “We added a last minute tour to the trip, and by far
it was my favorite. It had nothing to do with nature and everything
to do with the Costa Rican people. It had everything to do with
hopefully just showing the kids what work is like in Costa Rica.
"Marvin, the young man we hosted in January, his dad owns a factory.
So we quickly organized a trip to the factory and it was a working
factory. It was a yucca plant. Yucca is a root vegetable. It’s like
a staple food in Costa Rica, like a potato is to us. Marvin’s dad
runs the processing plant.”
Grunder and her students toured the plant, which involved
watching approximately 22 workers standing all day long, shaving the
yucca into stalks with a machete. “What I loved about that
experience was that they got to see the inside of a factory. We got
information about how they grow it, how they process it and what
they do with the leftovers, feeding it to the happy cows they said.
"Then the money part came in. Mostly women were working there and
they had crates and they filled their crates with the shaved yucca
and they would take it over to the station where it got weighed and
they would get two dollars. They moved quickly but it took about an
hour to fill the crate.”
“It was really interesting for some of the students to see what
their Ticos had to do to raise money to come to the U.S. It gave
them a new perspective on work, the value of the dollar and what it
was like to work in a place like that.”
She also noted that Marvin’s dad does not speak English, so Marvin
and his friend translated during the tour.
[to top of second column]
The American students and their impressive impromptu speeches
“The other experience that I think the kids will remember the most, and I know I
will too, was our last night there,” reflected Grunder. “It was very impromptu.
We all gathered at the church sector and had a potluck. One of the mothers, who
spent a lot of time with the kids, she was the social planner, that was
Madeline’s host mother, and she was really great. She invited our students to
stand and speak one at a time in Spanish.
"There were at least 50-70 people there. One by one, and I will probably cry, my
students stood up, some of them having barely two years of Spanish, only a
couple having four and a couple having three, and gave speeches from their
heart, in Spanish, thanking these people, talking about the relationships they
formed, talking about the country and talking about the culture.”
Tears welling up in her eyes again, Mrs. Grunder said, “Uhmm, yeah, I was a cry
baby that night.” Grunder can laugh about it now, but she was obviously beaming
“It was just so nice. You know, they all had their own language experience
there. We being English speakers, the Ticos really wanted to practice their
English, so it was really hard to stay in Spanish, because they wanted to learn
English. So, for my kids to stand up on the last day to face all these people
and just speak from their heart in Spanish was the most rewarding part of the
"They were very insightful. They were so respectful. In fact, this particular
group, over and over I just kept hearing they’re just so polite, they’re just so
"We need to brag about this more. Because we don’t brag about our students like
we should. I mean I took eleven of them to a foreign country and I didn’t have
one ounce of behavior problem, one ounce of a negative word or anything.
"They really impressed me with utilizing the few Spanish words that they have.
They really spoke well and they just did it, you know. It was impressive, to say
"They made people laugh. I’ve always told them you know you know your Spanish
when you can crack a joke and Spanish people laugh at you.
"Or now I can say, my gosh, if you can give a speech from your heart and make
people cry. They did it.
"They weren’t expecting to do that. It was totally impromptu. They didn’t have
Making note that all the boys went first, Grunder commented that “they knocked
it out of the park.” She also added quietly that the boys shed a few tears while
they were speaking.
“This is what it’s about, you know. I don’t know that I will ever travel to a
foreign country with students again just to travel because those relationships
and the things that happened that we didn’t expect were going to happen were the
things that are going to keep them wanting to go back, keep them wanting to stay
on top of their Spanish, keep them communicating and getting so eager and
excited to have them here in January.
“It was a very rewarding last evening and it made leaving the next morning even
that much harder. It was very hard to leave. We can only hope that they have as
great of an experience as we did because it really was very positive. It was
great,” Grunder said.
The last night together the students reflect on the experience
Grunder told one final story of the last night she and the students spent
together in Costa Rica. After they said good-bye to their host families, they
stayed in a lodge in the jungle that had tree houses, complete with monkeys in
the nearby surroundings. Lots of loud monkeys who indeed do throw things,
according to Grunder.
Her response to that was characteristic of her personality. “It was fun. It was
really fun,” she said.
So, she gathered the students together for a “pow wow” in her room and she asked
the students to answer questions about the experience. They were very honest,
she said, and she was happy to share their responses.
Here are the comments the students shared on their last night together in Costa
Rica. Muchas Gracias, Senora y los estudiantes!
Peyton Taylor: Costa Rica was much more beautiful than I thought it would
be. I loved it there, and I am going to miss everyone a lot! I wanted to stay
Shay Inselmann: I was surprised that shoes have to be worn in their
homes. And, I was surprised that my shower was not warm.
Eli Olson: My top three memories are: Laying on the ground with friends,
looking at the stars, and listening to "Hotel California"...in Costa Rica! Going
to the hot springs with my host family. And, being at the waterfall and
ziplining in the jungle!
Faith Doerr: I learned that I am not as tough-skinned as I thought I was:
I can fall in love with a family in just 12 days! I also learned that I really
do like to try new things. I also realized that just because the way people live
is different, doesn't mean they're poor.
Elizabeth Siebert: Even though our MPHS group was diverse, we all grew
closer and got along well.
Madeline Moody: I wish it was longer. I would have talked more with my
Tico’s brothers earlier in the week. I already want to go back.
Ashley Houser: I learned that I am braver than I thought I was. It
surprised me how close all of us (Hilltoppers and Ticos) became so quickly. We
all come from different (friend) groups, but we all got along great.
Morgan Kinnaird: I was surprised by how much of the language I actually
could understand, because I didn't feel confident in my skills. I have never
felt closer to a group of people like this before.
Jaden Elliott: Honestly, I didn't think it would be as well-developed as
it was. The food is much better than I could've wished for! And, I loved the
friendly, chill people.
Felipe Buenrostro: I learned how independent I can be. I was surprised by
how chill you can be and still get things done.
Sebastian Scassiferro: Everyone was so friendly and patient with us. I
learned that in a tough situation (with language), I can speak Spanish pretty
My (Teena Lowery) two cents:
MPHS is so fortunate to have Rachel Grunder not just as their Spanish teacher,
but as an individual who truly cares about the students and their positive
growth. She is truly someone who beams with pride when talking about her
“Hilltoppers” and her compliments about these kids and their positive attitudes
just goes on and on.
MPHS is also very lucky to have Grunder take such an interest in jumpstarting
the foreign exchange student program. It’s been years since MPHS was involved in
this endeavor and if the first successful trip is any indication, it looks like
there will be more trips in the future.
With that being said, Grunder already has a group together that will go to Spain
In the meantime, MPHS families will host Spain students September 10-30, 2016.
Students can then look forward to their Ticos visiting Mount Pulaski January
5-16, 2017. Looks like many life-long bonds will be forged and for our little
community, it will be fun to welcome these young people into our lives.
Job well done, Senora.