Alumni Spotlight: Gillian Flannery


Gillian is a student at the University of Wisconsin going on to study limnology and water resource and conservation engineering. She is an international traveler and student, as well as an avid hiker, kayaker, and student athlete.

Why did you choose this program?

I chose this program because it offered me a chance to experience a culture extremely varied from my own. I chose Costa Rica for the wildlife and geography, as well as the history that is attributed to one of the happiest places on Earth.

I was looking to escape my average life and leave to meet new people, learn a new language, adopt a new way of life, and gain a better understanding of an entirely new portion of the world. I opted for a semester (5-6 months), in which I would also be enrolled in school, so I would have a full immersion into the life of an individual my age in Costa Rica.

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

AFS provided me with the international travel and Visas, as well as an arrival orientation that helped me gain an idea of what Costa Rica is about and what to expect in terms of school, family life, and social/cultural norms. The program also provided me with a host family and host school, a mid-stay orientation, contacts and counselors to help me immerse myself, and travel opportunities to other nearby countries.

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

My best piece of advice is to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. Not everything will go just as planned. Just like life at home, there will be obstacles to overcome in school and with friends and family.

Life becomes much easier once you learn to let loose, enjoy the time you have with the people you meet and the places you are in, and make the most out of every situation.

Whenever my friends ask me about my experience and if they should look into traveling abroad, I always tell them that it was the absolute best time of my life and that I will forever be thankful for the people I met, the way of life I adopted, and the lessons I’ve learned. It is a life changing experience, and I will always recommend it.

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

Although it varies depending on where you are placed and with what family, an average day for me would have been waking up around 8 in the morning, taking a shower, and eating homemade gallo pinto and plantains for breakfast with my family. I would go to school for my classes for the day, then come home, and my friends, family, and myself would grab our surf boards and fishing gear and head to the beach until sunset. Dinner was eaten later at night, accompanied with music or talk and multiple family members stopping over to say hi or to join for dinner.

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 leaving home and missing out on life back in the States. I soon overcame my homesickness, and I became so connected and involved with my life in Costa Rica that I didn’t have any time to worry about missing events or occasions back home. It’s not easy to overcome the homesickness, and I always missed my family members, but I knew that what I was doing in Costa Rica was on my own precious time and I should enjoy every second of it.

What is your most memorable experience?

My most memorable experience was on a Saturday when my friends and I went to a nearby beach. We brought a few dollars each, our surfboards, swimsuits, blankets, and biked a few miles out to the beach. We swam and surfed and I taught my friends how to body surf. When lunchtime came, we bike to a friend’s family member’s house where we ate a homemade lunch of plantains, yucca, fruits, and vegetables all fresh from a market.

After lunch, we rode back to the beach and my friends encourage me and my best friend, Nicolas, another exchange student from Italy, to jump off the bridge into the water below. It was so far up and I was terrified, but we jumped and everyone watched and clapped and laughed. That was one of the most exhilarating experiences and most memorable moments from my time there.