There I stood, on a dirt road in the scorching hot middle-of-the-day sun, water bottle empty and far from civilization. I could feel the sweat dripping down my back as the heat accumulated on my black backpack. While this circumstance seems less than ideal, this was one of the best days of my life.

I was in northeastern Costa Rica where I spent one of the three weeks of Academic Trek’s Primate Studies program studying primates and rain forest ecology. While staying at El Zota Biological Field Station, my group took a field trip to a local high school to participate in a cultural exchange. While I came on this trip to learn about monkeys, on that day I learned more about myself than I ever have before.

Earlier that day, my group of 12 students from the U.S., Canada, and Slovakia arrived at the high school. As soon as I stepped off the bus, I realized that they were all staring at us. This experience was a lot like getting pushed off a boat. I was scared and shocked as I was thrust into a new and uncomfortable situation. But once I realized I was in the water and I was okay, swimming in the middle of the ocean was one of the best feelings. Getting off the bus, I felt exactly the same way. While I do speak Spanish, and had been eagerly trying to speak Spanish to everyone I met, I was extremely overwhelmed. After several enthusiastic holas and no responses, one boy, Alan, came up to us and said hola. He introduced himself, and we had a rather fragmented conversation. Soon, he had us up dancing merengue while we waited for lunch. Afterwards, I thought about how scary that must have been for him.

The day went on with tree planting, soccer playing, and dancing. We danced merengue with our new Costa Rican friends, and I soon realized that laughing, dancing, and having fun are laughing, dancing, and having fun no matter what language you speak or where you come from. When we immerse ourselves in another culture, we forget about everything that makes us different, and we have time to focus on what makes us similar. And what makes us similar is what makes us human. For instance, you can say so much just by smiling. Once the initial barrier is gone, and we can just be kids side by side, we are very much the same. On this day I learned that I must always try to see past what makes someone different from me. Even though everyone has their own personal uniqueness, there would be so much more mutual understanding among people and cultures if we learned to see past our differences in things such as language or religion. Even though these kid’s lives were about two worlds apart from mine, when we were dancing together, it was as if everything between us didn’t exist. And while my effort to speak Spanish helped in breaking down this barrier, I truly feel that my effort to smile helped even more. On this day, I learned that a smile truly is universal, and powerful as well. I know I broke down barriers just by smiling. This experience gave me the chance to step back. I realized that it’s not about being American, Costa Rican, Slovakian, Canadian or anything for that matter. It’s about being people, and in the end this is all that matters.

Later that afternoon, my group was walking back to the school, and some boys, still in uniform, but with no shoes on, rode past us on a bike. They pointed to us and said “amigos.” We pointed at them and said “friend.” They pointed back at us and said, “friend.” Suddenly, I could no longer feel the sweat drip down my back. I was no longer thirsty and I forgot that my sunburn was really going to hurt later. All I could do was smile. I realized that in that moment, I changed someone’s mind. I changed the way they will look at my culture, and it changed the way I look at theirs. This was an incredibly inspiring moment, and sparked my interest to learn about as many cultures as I can. It is my ambition to be understanding of every culture I encounter and every person I meet. When we can be accepting of all other cultures, only then will we truly understand our own. Too many people never reach this point of understanding other people, let alone themselves.

Although arriving at the school was scary, it soon felt like home and it was even hard to say goodbye to my new friends there, as they were some of the warmest, most welcoming people I had ever met. When someone pushes you off a boat, you can’t turn around. If you have to jump in, you might as well jump in head first, or throw your hands back and enjoy the ride. If you hold on tight, you miss out on the experience because you’re too worried about holding on. I realized that I can apply this to my life and to everything that I do. If I have an opportunity, I go for it. I make the most of it. If I can’t turn around, I go forward confidently. If I am scared, I now try really hard to make it positive because you can never relive a moment, so why not make the most of it? I left the school that day with a new outlook on my life. The rest of the trip, and when I returned home, I made an effort to throw my hands back and always live in the moment.

Traveling farther and farther away from home has taught me more and more about myself and where my place is in the world. Ironically, traveling reminds us how connected we are. Alan said to me his town is “un lugar para ser amigos.” A place to be friends. When I heard this I immediately thought, what can I do to make my community a place to be friends? I was so inspired by the happiness and friendliness I observed at the school. Material things don’t matter to these people, because they have each other, and that is the most important thing. I went home with a completely changed attitude about material things.

After this experience, I had so much to ponder. After all, I was in Costa Rica to study monkeys, and I learned more this day than any previous day on my trip. But then it crossed my mind that primates are social animals. We need experiences like the one I had that day. We need to be interactive with other members of our species. We need to feel like we fit somewhere. Because our social structure is so complex, understanding is so important. Understanding each other, understanding other cultures, and understanding ourselves. Culture really is incredible. From language to art and music, from religion to politics and government. We understand our own government by studying ancient civilizations. We understand words in our language by their roots that come from other languages. As social animals, we learn from each other. I know that I have learned the most from people who are the most different from me. Without cultural diversity, what would we have to learn from? How would we know if there were different, and maybe even better ways of doing things? This confirms my belief in the quote, “Strength lies in differences, not in similarities.”

The day I spent at a high school in Costa Rica opened my eyes so much. I now look at the world and my life in a different light. As I go into the world as a young adult, I am ready to be accepting of all people, and make the most out of every opportunity I have. I want to continue changing people’s minds and representing my culture in a way that makes people look at it in a positive way. At the same time, I must embrace who I am and where I come from, and no matter how far away I venture, I will never forget where I came from. Rather than trying to identify with people who are similar to me, I will make it my goal to learn about people who are the most different. I will try new things and always keep my mind and heart wide open. In order to accept the things that make us human, we must step back and see past our differences. The next time I am pushed off a boat, I will throw my hands back and be ready for an adventure. Maybe I will even jump in before someone pushes me. By embracing this experience and jumping in all the way to learn about the Costa Rican culture, I believe I am doing my part in becoming a citizen of the world.

-Shayna Orens