The last two weeks have been filled with a plethora of emotions; among them curiosity, discomfort, joy, and most importantly gratitude. I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to have traveled to Costa Rica and experience the country’s culture first hand, my host family’s generosity and kindness, and the Costa Rican Language Academy for making it all possible. However, I am most thankful for the opportunity to grow and learn. Over the course of this program I have learned a great deal, but perhaps the most pertinent to my Social Work practice is the importance of cultural competence, language and research.
In our classes at GSSW, cultural competence is a buzzword that is used frequently, but what does it really mean? To me cultural competence is one’s ability to learn about and respect a culture that is different from their own in order to understand their client’s perspective and improve their ability to work together. A key aspect of cultural competence is that one does not have to agree with their client’s views in order to understand or work with them. Throughout our program, cultural competence was gained through asking our teachers and site visits sensitive questions about systems and culture. We gained insight into Costa Ricans’ views on abortion, LGBT communities, human trafficking, guns, and child welfare in order to understand the community better. Learning how to ask these types of questions is especially imperative to my practice as I am neither an American Latina nor Latina immigrant and will always be an outsider looking in.
Moreover, I was made very aware of the importance of language during my time in Costa Rica. I am a Spanish Second Language Learner who took Spanish classes starting in third grade, through my senior year of college. I had teachers from Colombia, Panama, Mexico, the United States, Venezuela and Spain. I use the vosotros form and did not learn the subjunctive until college. I studied abroad in Spain for a semester, whose Spanish is very formal, and as a result my vocabulary is Castilian and my accent mimics that of a Spaniard. While I have always known that my Spanish is different than that of most of the clients with whom I will be working, it was not until this trip that I truly realized the impact it could have on my practice. Every Spanish speaking country has its own accent and colloquial terms, just like the English speaking countries do. However, there are 22 Spanish-speaking countries, meaning 22 different dialects and distinct ways of speaking. It will be important for me to know where my clients are from so that I can better communicate with them, because making a language mistake is not only embarrassing, but could also be detrimental to the clinician-client relationship. For example, I learned that “que chulo,” which means “how cute” in many latin countries, does not mean “how cute” in Costa Rica, and is in fact offensive. Making a mistake like this with a client could be the end of that relationship, and while it is impossible to know the colloquial terminology of every Spanish speaking country, it does bring to light the importance of research.
While it may seem like a “no-brainer” that research is an important aspect of Social Work, it became very clear during my time in Costa Rica that I had not done sufficient research about the country that I would call home for two weeks. I knew very little about Costa Rica before I landed on its soil, which was a disservice to myself in that I was not prepared for what to expect in terms of culture or language. Research is the key for any Social Worker. For example, when I start working with a client from a country or culture that I know little about, it is my job to research their culture and language in order to gain a basic understanding of them. However, I cannot use my research to make sweeping generalizations about my client. It is up to the client to define what their culture means to them.
Overall, my time in Costa Rica was worthwhile as I grew not only as a Social Worker, but also a global citizen. I saw firsthand the importance of cultural competence, language and research and will return to Denver with the intention of better applying them to my practice.