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WHEN BIOLOGY MAJOR TIA CAMARATA ’17 TRAVELLED TO COSTA RICA THIS PAST JANUARY on an Albright Interim trip, she wasn’t expecting White-Tailed Deer to be a big source of excitement. Little did she know hat these creatures, which are so plentiful in Pennsylvania, are the national animal of Costa Rica and a cause for celebration whenever sighted. “In Reading, I can see half a dozen deer at any given time; I was much more excited about the sloths,” she says with a laugh.

The experience was but one of many wonderful learning moments for Camarata and 11 other Albright students who travelled to Costa Rica in January for a three-week biological field study course with Steve Mech, Ph.D., chair and professor of biology, and Karen Campbell, Ph.D., P. Kenneth Nase M.D. ’55 professor of biology. The students visited several ecological reserves in different areas of the country to get a sense of the nation’s ecological diversity and practice identifying various species of plants, birds and mammals before arriving at their home base of Casa de Gratitude, a 5-acre property and villa donated to Albright in 2014 by Max Jackson, Ed.D. ’75, on behalf of himself and his late wife Mary Lou (Hafner) Jackson ’75.

“We selected a small group of biology and environmental science students for this inaugural session because it was an advanced ecology trip and Karen and I wanted to take students we had already worked with and knew well for our first course in Costa Rica,” says Mech. Once settled at the villa, the students broke into six groups of two to survey the property’s bird, bat, plant, insect, mammal and reptile populations. Although responsible for gathering information on their specific group, students also assisted one another and learned about every aspect of the ecological population encompassed by the 5-acre plot.

Both Mech and Campbell are delighted with the results of their stay. “I enjoyed watching the students react to the diversity of Costa Rica’s ecological population,” says Mech. He is already planning additional Interim trips in the next several years and is hoping that other college departments will use the property for spring break and summer trips. “Casa de Gratitude is not just a biology field station,” he says. “It should be used for other purposes by other departments as well.”

Below photographs courtesy of the Albright College biology department unless otherwise noted

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“One of the challenges of teaching students about science is that they’re often missing out on the experience of seeing what real-world science is like,” says Campbell. They’re learning skills in lab classes, she admits, but they don’t get the opportunity to test hypotheses and ‘do’ science in the same way. In Costa Rica, however, every day was a new opportunity for hands-on learning. “We put students in situations where they had to solve problems like identifying plants, birds, insects and mammals that were completely foreign to them and creating a biotic inventory. It was great experience for them.”

“I learned a lot about doing field work in biology,” confirms biology and psychology major Brooke Ronney ’17. “My partner and I were responsible for identifying birds on the property, largely through the use of a field guide, which was a new experience. It was also fascinating to tour some of Costa Rica’s national parks with biologists—I was learning every five seconds!”

The trip was eye-opening for Campbell as well. Although she has led Interim classes in other places, including Ecuador, she has never been with students continuously the way she was in Costa Rica. “On other trips, students have stayed with host families, but in Costa Rica, we were all together all the time, and it was great. The students worked well as a team and as I looked around at dinner one night, I realized, ‘This is the kind of class I like to teach’ —we were all together like a family.”

For biochemistry major Justin Hoffman ’18, that sense of camaraderie was nearly as important as the educational experience. “We had a great group dynamic—we were all science majors with very different backgrounds, crammed into a house  with people we didn’t know well or at all, and we got done what needed to get done and had fun doing it.” The villa was beautiful, says Hoffman, and the diversity of biotic life overwhelming. “As a biochem major, I hadn’t taken as much biology as the other students, so this course gave me the chance to fill in a knowledge gap in an exotic way and practice my Spanish.”

The Jacksons’ generous gift offers tremendous opportunity to Albright, observes Mech, and will undoubtedly provide a valuable learning environment for faculty and students alike for many years to come. “I think Albright is the only college of its size to have a research facility in Costa Rica and certainly the only college in this area. It’s tremendously exciting because it allows us to give students an international experience for a short amount of time as well as the chance to consider longer study abroad ventures in the future. We’re very grateful for the Jacksons’ generosity and foresight.”

Visit http://www.albright.edu/costarica/ to see footage and to learn more about the inaugural trip to Costa Rica.


The idea for Rio de Sueños—a 5-acre property created by Mary Lou (Hafner) Jackson ’75 and Max Jackson, Ed.D. ’75 on the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica—began to coalesce over two decades ago. “We started talking about acquiring a property in 1994; the home and grounds as they exist today are the result of a lot of strategic planning sessions and 20 years of owning, learning and building,” Max  says with an easy laugh.

“As we looked toward retirement, Mary Lou and I talked about where we would live, given our current values, if we hadn’t been born in the U.S, and we quickly focused on Costa Rica,” Max continues. “The country and its people have so many qualities that appealed to us: no standing army, universal health care, free pre-natal care, a love of family and a respect for the elderly and their environment. In short, their values and culture matched ours, and the people are amazing.”

At the same time they were planning their ideal retreat, however, the Jacksons were thinking about how to give it all away. Both felt as though they had benefited immeasurably from their time at Albright, and they wanted to give back. “Creating something out of nothing and then giving it to Albright seemed like a good plan,” says Max.

Sadly, Mary Lou passed away in April 2010, two years before the couple could complete their move to Costa Rica, but Max continued with their plan, renaming the property Casa de Gratitude in honor of his wife and donating it to Albright in 2014.

Max hopes that his gift will inspire others. “For me, this is about following through on what Mary Lou and I believed in, and that included Albright College. We did the work, but they provided the opportunity, and we wanted to do our part to continue that tradition. The focus for me is gratitude,” he concludes. “Don’t wait until you die to say thank you. You can make a difference now.”

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