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Learning gone wild

Welcome to a classroom where a tapestry of rolling green stretches thousands of mountainous feet above you on either side. Where former presidents lecture. Where the finest pre-Columbian art in the world is displayed. Where hikes through tropical forests lead to discoveries about the intricacies of an extraordinary ecosystem.

“It’s the way education should be,” says Arthur Gilbert, associate professor at DU’s Graduate School of International Studies and instructor in that classroom in Costa Rica.

During 17 days in early December, the course Culture and Politics in Central America immerses 30–40 students in 25 activities: 10 lectures, seven fieldtrips, four visits and four meetings. One year, students even spent an afternoon with Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias.

The five-credit course—which usually carries a waiting list—was born 15 years ago when a student from Costa Rica nudged Gilbert to create it. Fourteen trips later, hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students have participated and thousands more have heard the buzz about the course.

The region’s beauty alone could attract students, but it’s Gilbert’s personality that really piques their interest. He’s a “glass-half-full” kind of guy. Gilbert’s infectious laugh peppers his lectures, and he’s known for cooking chili for his students. (The beloved professor also is the namesake of DU’s Gilbert Cyber Café in Cherrington Hall.)

Sophomore international business major Vanessa Hernandez says she chose the Costa Rica option after taking a global politics course with Gilbert. “He was so good and funny, I knew it would be a great experience, and it was.”

Sophomore music major John Arrotti was another won over by Gilbert’s charm. “I took one of his classes, and he was just a phenomenal professor,” Arrotti says. “The trip didn’t feel like school, but I learned a ton.”

The passion Gilbert has for the course is palpable, but he humbly brushes aside that he’s the reason the class is popular. Instead, he attributes the appeal to the fact that each trip is customized to fit students’ interests.

For instance, this year’s class visited Costa Rica’s largest prison because a criminal justice student wanted to see how the nation handles its criminals. Hernandez went into shops and learned about trade, bargaining and negotiation. “I know it will help me in my career,” she says.

Arrotti says he’s now hooked on international travel. He’s planning to spend a year studying in Australia, and he’s recruiting his parents to return with him soon to Central America.

Students get three-day weekends “off ” to discover Costa Rica on their own. The rest of their time is spent meeting Costa Rican leaders, touring museums, parks and businesses and attending special events.

Both Arrotti and Hernandez say they learned more in the 17 days than in any traditional 10-week course they’ve taken.

“Where else can you find everything from live volcanoes to exotic wildlife and get college credit?” asks Becca Stine, MA ’03, who helps coordinate the trip.

“It’s been my privilege to introduce so many DU students to this beautiful and interesting country,” Gilbert says.





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