Tamara-Coleman-Hill_Costa-RicaThere are sabbaticals where a semester is spent researching and writing—perhaps completing work on a dissertation. There are other sabbaticals where the semester is spent in the wilderness investigating fauna and flora. Then there is the sabbatical taken by Tamarra Coleman-Hill, assistant professor of Communications, in fall 2015—finally answering a call she first heard back in the 1990s in Southern California.

“When I was an undergraduate, I was working as a waitress, and a co-worker talked about her trip to Costa Rica. It sounded like an adventure,” Coleman- Hill said.

So she did more research and discovered that Costa Rica “is a great place for sustainable agriculture.” Her interest in natural and organic food also enflamed her interest in agriculture and owning a farm, but she kept putting it off. So when Coleman-Hill had the opportunity to take a sabbatical, she decided it was time to follow through. She chose to spend eight weeks at Earth University in Guácimo, which is in the heart of the tropical rainforest in the Caribbean lowlands of Costa Rica.

The private, nonprofit university offers a four-year undergraduate program in agricultural sciences and natural resources management to its 430 students who come from Costa Rica and other developing nations in Latin America and Africa such as Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Liberia, and Uganda. Earth University also would allow her to bring her family as the school has faculty housing and a K-12 school on the campus.

Although Coleman-Hill had four years of Spanish, her ability to communicate effectively was challenging. Classroom instruction was in Spanish and the farm managers with whom she worked spoke no English. She was able to connect, however, with students, especially those who were from African nations as they spoke English.

She had imagined that she would spend a lot of time involved in farm work, but actually she spent more time with students and faculty in the classroom, dining hall, informal coffee dates, and gatherings at the residences on campus.

Wednesday was designated as community day, so she, along with the students, took buses to the local family farms for the day. There also were opportunities to work in “la comunidad” (the community) on Saturdays. On one of those Saturdays Coleman-Hill, along with four other students and a faculty member, built two bio-digesters.

The bio-digesters were built using plastic pipe, tire treads and plastic buckets plus other materials that local farm owners could access and afford. The bio-digesters convert animal waste into methane gas that can be used for cooking gas and electricity, saving money for local families that can be allocated for other living expenses.

Her time also was spent doing research on urban agriculture—something she would like to introduce at Moraine Valley. She also hopes to incorporate experiential work in social issues and develop career paths for students here. Coleman-Hill noted the students at Earth were involved in internships that were important and relevant to their career interests.

Earth University has a relationship with Whole Foods and provides bananas to the supermarket company. Some students were able to procure internships with the grocer and learn about food production, trade and other aspects of business. The university also sells yogurt and cheese to the food store chain.

Despite her busy schedule, Coleman-Hill and her family found time to sightsee. They visited Cahuita National Park, beaches on the Caribbean and Poas Volcano. They rented a house in the jungle for a weekend that had an open wall where anything could come in like “enormous grasshoppers” and “flying cockroaches. They were big!”

“It was an eye-opening cultural experience,” she said. “I saw how they live on farms. The average income is $6,000 a year, but despite the low income, you don’t have those desperate poor areas like in the U.S. It seems that most Costa Rican people have basic needs met. There is poverty, but it is different. They’re welcoming, proud and respectful.”

She plans to return, but this time it won’t be in another 20 years or so. In fact, it will be in April when she represents Moraine Valley at a college fair and to do more exploring. And possibly build another bio-digester?