Although living abroad was at the top of my priorities in life when I arrived in Costa Rica, I never once took it seriously. I felt it was more of an obligation to my travelself than the student in me. If it was going to happen, it would unfold organically, as part of my travel experience, and not something I was going to go out of my way for.
I arrived in Costa Rica more than a week before the semester began - to get a scope of the area, the culture, and the language. I had absolutely no Spanish in my arsenal (which should never stop anyone from going anywhere), and wanted some first-hand stories before the inevitable Orientation, where we'd be equally fresh meat to be cleaved. Within days I was staying with a local on the rural Caribbean coast. It would shape the rest of my experience in Central America, which went far beyond a semester in San Jose.
The host family was for the most part wonderful, and in that neighborhood I have friends whom I've gone back to visit long after school was out. Be careful of the maids, however. My first few days in the home of my hosts, more than a little bit of plata - cash - went missing. It showed up later, after a diplomatic inquiry, in a very peculiar spot.
It would behoove the student to be clear with what they wish to eat while living with their host families. Usually one will end up with traditional Tico fare - rice and beans with meat or fish, and occasionally plantanos - friend plantains, which are very popular (and for good reason). However, there are subtleties that go misunderstood sometimes, such as the idea that if something has a US American label or stigma attached to it, that all people from that place love and consume it. Coffee is a perfect example: Costa Rica produces arguably the best coffee in the world (I didn't drink it until I moved there, so delicious and rich is it), yet ticos may go out of the way to buy Folgers Instant coffee (at far greater expense than the higher quality local stuff) because they may think their students may prefer it. As a result of such confusion, for weeks my roommates and I were subject to hot dogs and Fruit Loops for breakfast, which is not good for vegetarians about to spend four hours in an intensive Spanish course (sugar crashes at 10 a.m. sharp). We first thought it rude to revise our wanted menus - do not make this mistake.
Also, another important note is that the families are being paid relatively good money to take care of you, and some entrepreneurial folks do student housing for only that reason. On more than one occasion friends of mine (including a roommate of mine) left the originally-assigned host home for one that suited them better. Do not hesitate to ask for this if you want it.
The API program directors, Esteban and Francy, were consistently available if not present, and communication was not a problem. Over the course of the semester, however, some of the other students in my program and I discussed issues with how the money was handled by API; for example, on 'mandatory' trips (which were understood to be 'all expenses paid' by our program fees), we were obligated to pay for meals, even those we all ate together on the way to our destination.
None of us thought this fair, as we felt that if the trip was mandatory and we'd already paid for transport and accommodations, why were meals not included? Freedom of choice was one reason given, which was valid, but in this case a per diem would have provided for that and alleviated some negative feelings.
One essential piece of information which needed to be more clear upon class signups was how the credit distribution works: in my case, I was under the impression that when I signed up for a Spanish class, I would be in the class for the duration of the semester. It turned out to be a one-month intensive class, followed by a month-and-a-half of the elective classes I signed up as auxiliaries.
As a result, when the uni class ended, I signed up for a local language course in my neighborhood. It was perhaps the best decision I made in San Jose - a direct injection into the local culture. It was exactly what I was looking for in my semester of study abroad, and it had very little to do with university at all. Not having read the fine print before my trip made my experience the richer.
My experience in Costa Rica was unique to the lot of them, and saw myself as a special case there - I was 25 and had just started university. Many of those I met were about to graduate, and barely old enough to drink in the States. In theory, it does not sound unreasonable - I wasn't the oldest student there by any means - but it made connections more difficult and tenuous. I was well past my party-all-night days (unlike, for example, my roommate, who saw our apartment next to the host home as the perfect place to host parties), and found the opportunity to integrate into the local culture rather than the imported one as less a challenge than escape.
With regards to safety, one must understand that San Jose is not an inherently safe, or particularly friendly, place. The people are generally kind, but the city dulls its beauty with fear, and bears a sad amount of 'security' gates and guards. There are graffiti stencils everywhere around the city that read 'Imaginate San Jose Sin Rejas.' Imagine San Jose without bars. Give it a shot, but be careful where you walk. And, a small piece of advice: don't walk into Barrio Cristo Rey, especially with a backpack full of valuables. You might walk out of the neighborhood with your life, but not with your stuff. To the adventurous who might read and think 'exaggeration', try it. Go ahead.
There were beautiful aspects of my study abroad experience, while others decidedly less so. Many of the former had little to do with the program directly, but would not have happened were it not for every element, including my choice to go with API, falling into place like it did. Such as in travel, and life.
Would I recommend this program to a friend? I would mention it to them. I would tell them what I knew about it, and suggest they look at all of their options. I arrived in Costa Rica because I spun a globe and my finger landed near its Caribbean coast. An API brochure just happened to have Costa Rica listed in it. If I had done more research, perhaps I could have found something more preferable - I heard both positive and negative reviews of other programs, and in my opinion, API's features fell somewhere in the middle. But I didn't, ended up where I did, and given the chance to do it again, I would without hesitation.