By Michele Tallarita ’12
Paige Triola ’14 (Chalfont, Pa.) remembers the moment she stepped into a rainforest for the first time.
“It’s really humid, it’s extremely green, and it just looks like every square inch is taken up by some sort of living thing,” she says. “It was also very noisy. The birds were squawking their heads off.”
Triola spent the spring semester in Costa Rica, studying at the School for Field Studies (SFS) in a town called Atenas, which is about an hour west of San Jose. The program is called the Sustainable Development Studies Semester, and it involves examining the effects of globalization on agriculture, biodiversity protection, economic development, population growth, and other issues. The program focuses specifically on Costa Rica, whose recent social and economic changes have challenged the country to protect its diverse ecosystems while keeping pace with competitive global markets.
A biology major, Triola took courses in natural resource management, tropical ecology, Spanish language and culture, and economics. She learned a lot about ecosystems and how they function, but she says it was not the typical classroom experience.
“You’re in the rainforest, or on top of a volcano,” she says, noting that her surroundings continually amazed her. “This is the kind of thing I see on National Geographic, not in real life!”
For each course, Triola had to partner with another student to conduct a field experiment, which involved collecting data from wildlife and creating reports. She recalls sitting on a stump in the Monteverde Cloud Forest and picking berries off a witheringia bush, then counting the seeds inside each and every berry. “That was crazy,” she says.
She also recalls viewing a wild hummingbird up close after her professor caught it in a “mist net,” chasing after poison dart frogs, and jumping out of her skin when “some kind of rainforest turkey” unexpectedly ran across her path. Through all of it, Triola says she was ravenous to learn more about the rich wildlife surrounding her.
“I probably annoyed my professors a lot, because I was the kid asking questions every two seconds, and I kept touching everything in the forest,” she says.
When she wasn’t in the classroom or the rainforest (though the two often coincided), Triola and the other students traveled frequently. The group spent seven days on an island in Nicaragua called Ometepe, then went to Granada. The students visited a banana plantation, coffee farms, and volcanoes, usually focusing on seeing organic sites versus commercial ones.
Back at the SFS center, the group often took the 50-minute walk into town, where the students would go to relax and grab gelato, and where they also volunteered. Triola pitched in with the town’s recycling program, helped teach kids English, and did chores at a turtle shelter.
In all, she feels the experience has given her a career focus she didn’t have before.
“Going to Costa Rica and seeing all their conservation efforts, I think that inspired which direction my career will go. I’m starting to look into conservation. I’m excited about it,” she says. “I might even want to get a job where I travel a lot outside the country.”
Back on campus, Triola will serve as an SFS representative, sharing her experience with other students and convincing them that getting out of their comfort zones is totally worth it. “It was scary,” she says, “but I’m so glad I did it.”