Alumni Spotlight: Samantha Ni


Sam is a 4th year medical student at Stony Brook University. Before going off to her residency, she wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to learn Spanish through immersion as there is a great need for bridging the communication gap in the hospital.

Why did you choose this program?

I was rotating in the ER at Stony Brook one day and happened to overhear Dr. Hernandez talking about a program she started where participants not only learn Medical Spanish, but would also be completely immersed in Costa Rica. The next time I saw Dr. Hernandez, I immediately told her I was interested and would love the opportunity to go. My fourth year would offer me time, and an immersive program would be the best way to learn any language.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Dr. Hernandez and Maximo Nivel set up everything. I only had to submit some documents for formality. Once we arrived to Costa Rica, the other people in my cohort and I only had to organize our downtime. Everything was taken care of for us, and it was honestly a privilege to be a part of this program.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Although this is an immersive program, it is very easy for someone to just speak English anyway. My host family and my housemate, Jonah, were extremely crucial for my learning during my downtime. Everyone puts in the effort to strictly speak Spanish unless necessary. I promise the learning curve is steep, and it is incredibly rewarding at the end of the program.

I could barely speak any Spanish, and perhaps more importantly, I was very afraid to speak any Spanish out loud. By the end of the program, I was much more confident when starting conversations. I am by no means fluent, however, in my opinion, one of the greatest barriers to learning a foreign language is the fear of being judged. Overcoming that fear alone was worth the entire trip.

I advise mentally preparing to put your pride away, and embrace making the mistakes when speaking. No one is perfect when they start learning.

This program was designed to help you improve, and everyone is fully aware that it comes with a lot of stumbling and embarrassing mistakes. If you come in with the ability to laugh at yourself, I promise it becomes an experience that allows you to grow much more than you thought possible.

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Jonah and I had an unspoken agreement that we would speak Spanish at all times until it became impossible. We would wake up in the morning and eat breakfast with our host family. It was a lovely experience as we would start talking about our plans for the day, and they would tell us in return what they were going to do. There was an incredible amount of learning in those conversations alone as our host family would supply words we didn't know, or correct any grammatical errors.

Afterwards, we would walk down the block to meet up with the other students in our cohort. We took the bus together to the Hospital San Juan de Dios y Hospital de Niños. We split off to our respective clinics and were there from 9 to1. I looked forward to every day as our attending were amazing, and we met other medical students from Costa Rica. Besides learning Medical Spanish, we learned about the medical school system, the health care system, each person's perspective on these topics, and how it affected the general public.

After that, we would all reconvene and take the bus back towards Maximo Nivel. We usually went to eat lunch at one of the sodas that was about a 5-minute walk from the school. This was another place I learned to speak and listen to basic everyday Spanish. Even though the servers clearly knew we were foreigners, they never changed the way they spoke unless we asked them to repeat their question slowly.

We had Spanish class from 4 PM to 6 PM everyday. I was placed in the basic class where I had one-on-one lessons with my teacher. Even though it was intimidating, I benefited greatly from these classes. Alejandra adjusted her lessons to fit my learning style, and she realized quickly when I would be uncomfortable with something, and shifted her tactics so that it would not impede our progress.

After the first week, I would start off the lesson with telling her a short narrative of my day at the hospital, and I would attempt to incorporate grammar from a previous lesson. She was very patient while I spoke. Unless I looked to her for help, she never interrupted. Alejandra would only correct me at the end of my thought so as not to embarrass me or stop my train of thought. We spent a great deal of time conversing about everyday things besides learning Medical Spanish. She especially would take time to speak because she knew for my level of Spanish, I needed to get used to hearing Spanish.

I cannot say enough about my classes. Of course, I was still nervous every day because it was hard not to feel self-conscious about speaking, but Alejandra would always be encouraging. We also usually ended up laughing at ourselves which made classes a lot of fun, and I'm sure the classes on either side of us wondered why we were laughing all the time.

At the end of the day, we all met up again to take the bus back home. We were usually exhausted and just went back to our respective homestays. We would usually have dinner with the family and talk about our respective days. I can honestly say I always looked forward to breakfast and dinner specifically for these moments. I loved my host family, and they sincerely were some of the best people I have ever met.

During my last night in Costa Rica, my housemate and I did not end up seeing our host family for dinner, and I told my host mother through text that I might not return at a reasonable time that night. She still told me to wake her either when I got home or before I left for my flight (which would have been at 4 AM). When I got home, it was about 2 AM, and there was a small gift for me on my desk. I had no plans to wake my host parents despite what she had said, but then I heard a knock on my door. My host mom and dad had heard me coming back and wanted to make sure that they came to say goodbye before I left.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was absolutely the idea of speaking in a foreign language that I had not learned since I was 10. I did not want to sound stupid; I was afraid of making silly mistakes. I don't know that those fears ever really go away completely, but even by my second day there, I was able to put the fear in the back corner while I just tried my best.

From taking the bus to walking around the hospital to eating at a local soda; all of these moments contributed to feeling like I was actually a part of Costa Rica, and it made me more motivated to learning as much Spanish as I could.

My peers were also instrumental to my learning to speak Spanish. One of my friends, Sanida, is fluent in Spanish, and she made sure that I practiced speaking Spanish with her without feeling scared or intimidated. My housemate, Jonah, helped me overcome my fear of speaking in our homestay as we both tried to speak Spanish all the time. We would help each other out with words we didn't know.

I am still nervous when I speak the language, as I think most people are, but I feel so rewarded when I can see my progress. The Costa Ricans were always quick to support me when I tried to speak Spanish.

What is your favorite memory?

It was maybe the first or second night of our taking the bus back from Maximo Nivel to our homestays when we realized after some time, that we had taken the wrong bus.

While we tried to figure out what we should do next, a stranger came up to us and told us in English that he was pretty sure we meant to take the bus to Vargas Arraya, and that we had to take the 51-53 to Barrio Pinto (totally different neighborhood). He instructed us to take the bus back to where we hopped on as there was no other bus that would come around this neighborhood if we hopped off of it at that moment. He clearly had some difficulty speaking English, but he still helped us when he overheard our confusion.

When we got home, our host family asked us how our day was. Jonah and I attempted to tell them what happened with us in broken Spanish. They immediately understood what happened, and we all started laughing. They explained the bus system and disabused our previous notion of simply looking at the 51-53 tag on the side of the bus.

This was one of my favorite memories as I think it demonstrates what we're usually afraid of most – getting lost and not knowing how to ask for re-direction. However, I think it also demonstrates the spirit of Costa Rica when a stranger came to help us find our way back home after a 40 minute detour, and it ended up being a story to bring back to our homestay family. After this mishap, I can honestly that though we were more cautious of what bus we took, we were also not as afraid of making mistakes as we proved that we were able to handle it together.