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And the President Goes on Foot in San José

And the President Goes on Foot in San José May 28, 2009

“A very healthy thing it is to spend time with very smart twenty-year olds, to look at things through their eyes.”


Scott PentzerScott Pentzer

As he wraps up five years as Director of the ACM Costa Rica programs, Scott Pentzer reflects on the many charms of Costa Rica and the rewards of spending time with — and learning from — his students.

This summer, Scott will move to New Orleans and ACM will welcome Chris Vaughn as the new Director of the Costa Rica programs.

To catch a glimpse of Scott through the eyes of his former students, read what they have written in recognition of his service to the programs and in bidding him farewell. 


By Scott Pentzer

Scott Pentzer with students on the spring 2009 ACM Costa Rica program.

“Could that be?”

“You always think you see people you know.”

“I know, but it sure looks like him.  I am going to ask him.”

Of course, it was my old friend from study abroad days 16 years earlier.  My wife and I had been in San José for all of three days, a city I had not visited since I was a junior in college. We stopped for a cocktail before going to the National Theater, and I ran into a fellow I had once known quite well and had lost touch with over the years.

This sort of encounter is typical of Costa Rica, and is one of the most charming things about the country.  A lot of time has passed between my being a student and a program director, and a lot has changed in Costa Rica, but the basic neighborliness of the place has certainly stayed the same.  Wherever you go, you run into people you know, or know people you know, particularly if you are the director of ACM Costa Rica.  And those people are always willing to have a cup of coffee with one of our students, perhaps come to speak or perform at the ACM.

The Nicaraguan revolutionary priest and poet, Ernesto Cardenal, captured this aspect of the country in a poem he affectionately dedicated to Costa Rica with the line: “… and the President goes on foot in San José” (And I actually have seen a sitting and ex-president downtown!) A more unpretentious world of politicians, artists, and intellectuals would be very hard to find, and our students are always so appreciative of the access we give them to that world.

However, as I leave Costa Rica I think I am even more grateful to my students, and I would like to take this opportunity to explain why: Ernesto Cardenal is now 80 years old, but in some ways I think I am pretty close to his vintage when it comes to things Central American. When I was a student here in 1986-1987, the word “ecotourism” hardly existed, but the word “Sandinista” was very au courant. Oscar Arias was president for the first time, and would soon be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. (Indeed, several of the presidents of my youth seem to be popping up again: Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua; Alan Garcia in Peru, where I volunteered after college graduation. Until last November I was warily on the lookout for the resurrection of Ronald Reagan).

Curiously, I have learned over the last five years that the names may be the same, but many other things have changed. Central America has fallen off the front page of the world news section. Articles about travel in Costa Rica now hit the New York Times “most e-mailed” list. The country averages about a million visitors per year, and when we go home to the U.S.A. it seems everyone has either visited Costa Rica or knows someone who has.

Scott Pentzer visits James Engeln (spring 2008) at his field research site.

I have always liked undergraduate students, but these sorts of developments made them absolutely indispensable to me as I reoriented myself to a place that I once knew pretty well. ACM students were particularly good at pulling me out of my time warp. I will forever be grateful to them for that, because it made these years very rewarding. They taught me about field biology and eco-tourism, about organic farming and globalization, and about calypso music and call centers. Their enthusiasm for their Costa Rica was infectious, and put “my Costa Rica” in its proper perspective:  something I could share with a receptive audience, but not something to cling to. A very healthy thing it is to spend time with very smart twenty-year olds, to look at things through their eyes.

This summer I return to New Orleans — another small, but fascinating place where interesting people are unpretentious and accessible. The president may not walk down the street, but you can run into Kermit Ruffins leading a second line parade on a Sunday afternoon. Like Costa Rica, too, New Orleans is a place I once knew pretty well. As I return to a city that has changed a lot in a short time, I will always ask myself “Now, what would my ACM students make of this?” I am sure the answer will be heartening.


Scott Pentzer — Through the Eyes of His Students

After five years as Director of the ACM Costa Rica programs, Scott Pentzer is moving to New Orleans. A number of his former students have written to bid him farewell and to reminisce about Scott and his many contributions to the programs in Costa Rica.


For me Scott was always an example of how much could be gained from the abroad experience.  He always challenged us to get out there and experience the country and the culture even if we weren’t the most comfortable with the situation or the most confident with our speaking skills.  Also, through Scott’s dedication to helping others I got to participate in an after school program which turned out to be one of the highlights of my time in Costa Rica.


– Emily Sipfle (Fall 2006)


Emily Sipfle

Scott asked all of us what we were into and I said music. Scott was able to connect me with local musicians, whom I worked for while I was in Costa Rica and they introduced me to the music scene.  I even got to play some music with people in San Pedro! That was sweet. Now, I am making music for children in Minnesota.


– Justin Lansing (Fall 2005)

Justin Lansing

Scott’s passion for Latin America, learning, and just us students was evident in all that he did. His welcoming presence, open office door, and even the occasional car ride when he saw me waiting at the bus stop made my study abroad experience so much more enjoyable. He was always willing to talk about whatever concerns or questions we might have and he got me thinking more deeply about the work I was doing and how my identity was changing through my Costa Rican adventure. We joked that he was like our dad, caring and yet not afraid to steer us back to the right track when we got overly excited.


– Emily Krouse-Gagne (Fall 2006)

Emily Krouse-Gagne

Even though I have only known him for a short time, I look up to the way he adapts to the needs of each person he comes in contact with.  This is very impressive and something I strive to do too.  He is always willing to give up his time to help others.  I wish Scott the best in his future!


– T.J. Frett (Spring 2009)

T.J. Frett

Mostly what I remember about Scott from my time with the ACM was how he was always the first to break the “No English” rule in the ACM house, but usually because he had something fascinating or helpful he just couldn’t wait to tell us.  I’m especially grateful to Scott for encouraging us to apply for Fulbright fellowships, since I’m currently finishing one up in Mexico.  I’m working towards a Ph.D. at UC Santa Cruz, studying lizard reproductive behavior, and the Fulbright has been a huge help to me The Spanish I learned and the field experience I got while in Costa Rica have obviously come in pretty handy as well ;).


– Beth Bastiaans (Spring 2005)

Beth Bastianns

Scott was always so quick to help! I felt like I could always ask him for help or advice on anything. He continually put in so much effort to make sure each of us got the most out of our study abroad experience. He challenged us just the right amount! Also, his cheerful personality made ACM a happy place to be every day.


– Cassidy Heller (Fall 2006)

Cassidy Heller

Scott is just such a nice person. He has been so kind and helpful and always provides comic relief.


– Meg Poole (Spring 2009)

Meg Poole

It’s so sad to see Scott go from ACM Costa Rica.  He enhanced the program so much with his consistent willingness to help students, his enthusiasm for Costa Rica, and his efforts to make every student’s abroad experience the best it could be.  Papa Scott, we will miss you!


– Natalie Fast (Fall 2006), shown volunteering as a tutor in Costa Rica

Natalie Fast

Scott created and nurtured a wonderful sense of ACM culture. Through his always open door, friendly jokes, extensive knowledge and genuine interest, he made the ACM feel like a family. I will never forget how Scott, on our first full weekend in Costa Rica, went to the bus stop early Friday morning to buy tickets for the entire class to visit Cahuita together. Without his help and foresight, our first trip together to kick off an amazing semester would have never happened. My greatest admiration for Scott, though, comes from his seamless blend of compassion and intellect; he was always knowledgeable about a subject or was willing to research it, but his ability to empathize and truly connect with a student was never lost in his academic strength.


– Ryan Casserly (Spring 2008), shown with his host mother in Costa Rica

Ryan Casserly

Scott’s the man. I am in debt to him for the ACM semester and his subsequent help on my Fulbright to Argentina.  I wish him luck in NO.


– John Guittar (Spring 2006)

John Guittar
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