I studied at ICDS from August 2007-February 2008. I took classes from ICDS staff, stayed with a host family, and participated in a 2-month-long internship through ICDS. Overall, the experience pushed my middle-of-the-road Spanish into fluency, made me think about Central America in a completely new way, and was so, ridiculously fun!
The classes I took had to do with environmental sustainability (i.e. ecotourism), human rights, and Spanish. I loved all of them, except for one - the sustainable tourism one. The teacher just wasn't qualified to teach, and she was super disorganized. But, she had real-life experience and was nice, and I don't think she was brought back to teach again. The other classes were all incredible - they covered the Millennium Development Goals, as they applied to Costa Rica, Latin America, and the US. The classes also covered current and historic events and were super relevant to my time in Costa Rica, and in one class we went to a really poverty-stricken slum and learned about a really dark side to Costa Rica, including poverty and xenophobia against some immigrants. It completely changed my life.
The Spanish class was incredible - I went from intermediate to advanced through the classes and from simple immersion. One friend of mine arrived with minimal Spanish background, and was put in the beginner class, and her Spanish improved drastically in the first month - her teacher was great, and her host family was so sweet and patient.
My internship was through ICDS, and I worked with a partner to research the ;Law for Women's Real Equality', which was incredible. Through the ICDS's connections, we set up and conducted (in Spanish)interviews with some truly incredible people, including the former first lady and one of Oscar Arias' former aides. Being able to point to this internship has really made me stand out in interviews for jobs since graduating college!
Living with the host family was the best part. My host mom and I became so close, and she was patient and helpful with my Spanish. We had breakfast and dinner together every day, unless I was travelling, and these meals were vital to improving my Spanish and ensuring I felt very connected to Costa Rica!
When I went on the program, we had class all day for 4 days a week; that left three-day weekends every week. It was perfect - three days was the perfect amount of time to go travel to some beach or rainforest or volcano or other hidden gem in Costa Rica. Some weekends I stayed in San Pedro, and went to cultural events there or in San Jose (the capitol). It was incredibly easy to navigate the city and the country - In just a few days, I was comfortable taking the bus or walking to class or ICDS. Travelling around CR was also easy - we took trains, buses, taxis, ferries, even a small plane, and through our improving Spanish and the Costa Ricans' limited English, we had few problems.
In general, I felt VERY safe. I was a cautious traveler, but not overly paranoid. I felt safe taking taxis and walking - this was largely because the ICDS does a very helpful orientation that addresses real-life situations - including which taxis to take, and which to ignore. During the entire 7 months I was there, I had only 1 time that I felt unsafe, when I was taxiing home alone around 10:00 p.m. from a friend's host house. My taxi driver took a wrong turn and wouldn't go where I was telling him, so I got home about 15 minutes later than my host mom was expecting. I was a little scared, and frustrated because my taxi rate was way higher than I was prepared for. BUT, when we got to my host house, my host mom was waiting and I explained what happened and she railed against the taxi driver with the wrath of a mama bear, which made me feel way safe. She was rarely overbearing, too, so it was amazing. I miss her!
I would so strongly recommend not only studying in Costa Rica but going through ICDS. The folks here know Costa Rica so well, truly care about the well-being and development of their students, and are, above all, well-prepared to guide students through study abroad.