An unassuming trip to Costa Rica unlocked a deep fascination with Latin America that altered my life trajectory.

While an undergraduate in 2009, I decided to visit Costa Rica for three weeks during winter vacation. I experienced several "firsts" on that trip: traveling internationally, flying on a plane, riding a bus, and speaking a foreign language outside of a classroom, to name a few.

Just before that trip, I was struggling to find my footing. I transferred universities a couple years prior. I had changed majors no fewer than five times between the two universities. I was a couple years off track from my planned graduation despite entering university with a full year's worth of credits. I was desparate for a new experience.

On a whim, I planned a getaway with a friend. Since we were on a budget, we boarded a Greyhound bus in Memphis to Atlanta to catch our flight from Atlanta to San José. Treating a hostel in the capital city as our home base, we backpacked to Montezuma, Jaco, Quepos, and some of the suburbs of San José. Three weeks there was enough to get his hooks into me.

There is a clear delineation in my life after that trip. I subsequently studied Spanish, lived in Spain, tutored Spanish, and met my wife who was also a Spanish tutor. Moreover, I studied geography as a result of my budding interest in people and cultures and then interned in an urban planning office. When I started my graduate program in geography, I studied transportation and energy transition in Bolivia. Those experiences catapulted me into urban planning and then into transit planning in South Florida.

Such a drastic departure from my prior studies meant essentially starting over. I had invested a lot of time and money in the other prospects. Complicating matters more, I had recently received a full scholarship to study mathematics. On the other side was an opportunity to explore a topic in which I was truly interested. What I didn't anticipate was the enormous personal growth, career, and most importantly, family, that would come from that singular decision.

I took the risk and was rewarded. It was worth it. I would do it 1,000 times over without the guarantee of it ending positively.

Undoubtedly, my life would look entirely different had I not deviated from the expected by taking that trip to Costa Rica.

by @jlevimccollum

🚍 🗺️ 📊 Geographer working to build better government.