Serra Berry, center, works with Catie Ash, 6, as she paints at Berry Patch Early Learning Center in Hampstead Friday, Sept. 5.
Serra Berry, center, works with Catie Ash, 6, as she paints at Berry Patch Early Learning Center in Hampstead Friday, Sept. 5. (DAVE MUNCH/STAFF PHOTO)

McDaniel College senior Serra Berry decided spend her summer vacation 4,000 miles away from her college, family and friends traveling to a foreign land.

Berry, 20, was one of about 2,300 students across the nation awarded the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship, which grants undergraduate students funding to study abroad and participate in career-oriented volunteer work.


A Spanish major with a Latin American studies minor, Berry had the option at McDaniel to live in the foreign language dorm on-campus or travel abroad. She choose to go abroad.

Berry had flown international before, taking a family trip to Europe as a child. But she had never traveled outside of the United States alone, and never to a non-English speaking country.

Berry was awarded a $2,500 scholarship, which paid for one-fourth of her three month trip, May 30 to Aug. 23, to Costa Rica.

To study abroad, Berry went through the SOL Education Abroad program, which had several options for Spanish-speaking countries, including Argentina, Mexico, Spain and Costa Rica.

"I chose Costa Rica because it was the most friendly with the U.S. It was the most neutral county; I don't like conflict," Berry said.

One the things Berry does like, however, is working with children. She's worked at her mother's Hampstead learning center, Berry Patch Early Learning Center, for years.

It is Berry's goal to one day teach English to students in a Spanish-speaking country, or teach English for Speakers of Other Languages courses in America, so she decided to get some experience while she was abroad.

During the day, Berry took classes in advanced Spanish, and the culture and history of Latin America at Universidad Latina in San Pedro. She spent the other portion of her day teaching English to students at a local elementary school.

"I loved working at the school it was so much fun," Berry said. "Some days I taught them English, and we sang songs and did activities."

While there were lots of differences between Latin American culture and American culture that Berry noted during her trip, one similarity was the linguistic capabilities of children.

Similar to American children, in Costa Rica kids had trouble with their Rs especially the double-R, which is an integral part of the Spanish tongue, and enunciating the letter J, she said.

"It was a true test of my Spanish-speaking abilities," she said. "Some of them talked like little kids and don't fully pronounce words correctly."

Berry did not spend all of her time abroad at school and working. She took trips across Costa Rica to visit volcanoes, natural rain forests and the beach.

One of the things that struck Berry about the Latin American culture is their perception of time. In America, she said, everyone is rushing and in a hurry to do things and get places. However, in Costa Rica, because so many people are dependent on the mass transit system, there is more understanding when you are running late.


"Class started at 9 a.m. and all of the students would be there 15 minutes early," she said, "but the teacher might not get there until 9:15 a.m. and you just wait patiently.

"It's just a more laid-back life. They don't stress the little things like we do."

A large hurdle for Berry and her host family was understanding the difference in her independence. She currently lives with her boyfriend, and in the family-oriented culture in Costa Rica unmarried children continue to live at home.

"It's just different, but I don't think it's better or worse; it's just something I was not accustomed to," she said.

One of the best things Berry said she learned from her host family was how to make assorted Latin American dishes. She said she plans on trying them out soon.

"Knowing another culture by living with them and experiencing it is so much different," Berry said. "I really gained cultural competency and understanding; and a greater sense, and acceptable and true understanding for other cultures, not just Latin America or Costa Rica, but in general."

Reach staff writer Krishana Davis at 410-857-7862 or