Tuesday, August 18, 2009

College students learn about Costa Rican women's movement

Maple Scholars Rachel Halder (right) and Elizabeth Speigle (middle) teamed up with Professor of English Beth Martin Birky for their summer studies.

GOSHEN, Ind. – Two Goshen College students Rachel Halder and Elizabeth Speigle have teamed up with Professor of English Beth Martin Birky through the college's summer Maple Scholars Program to delve deeper in the Costa Rica women's movement and organize the data gathered by Birky's multiple research visits to Costa Rica.

Maple Scholars is an eight-week program, which ran from June 8 to July 31, and provides students an opportunity to work one-on-one with a faculty member on a focused project.

In the spring of 1981, as a student at Goshen College, Birky returned from three months studying abroad in Costa Rica. Upon her return she realized she needed to start asking more questions "about women's experience in Costa Rica's peaceful culture," Birky said. "I want to learn not only about women's lives, but also from them, from their strengths, their skills and resources."

Twenty years later when Birky and her family led one of the college's Study-Service Term (SST) to Costa Rica, it was the opportunity to start asking those questions. Over the next several years she visited Costa Rica four times to research women's organizations. "I have learned how essential solidarity and collaboration are to women's organization and empowerment in any community," Birky said.

To build on that work this summer, Birky's students Speigle and Halder studied the history of Costa Rica, the history of the Costa Rican Women's Movement, in addition to the country's current political statistics. A primary source for their research has been Birky's hours of video interviews with Costa Rican women.

After the initial research, Halder, a senior from Parnell, Iowa, began to narrow her study to Women's Cooperatives. According to International Co-op Alliance (ICA), a cooperative is a self-sufficient group of people "united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly owned and democratically-controlled enterprise." Halder's project included researching and gaining a better understanding of the general idea of cooperatives and specifically the cooperatives in Costa Rica.

Further into the research, Halder decided to focus on one very small artisan cooperative in Monteverde, Costa Rica, called Artisans Commission of Santa Elena-Monteverde (CASEM). CASEM is a crafts cooperative joined together with the overall goal of promoting the empowerment of women as the women learn more about themselves, social groups, economics and businesses.

Parts of Birky's video interviews were of women involved with CASEM. Halder's final project included making a short documentary film focused on CASEM and the leadership provided by one of the original founders, in addition to the historical research done throughout the summer.

Speigle, a junior from Telford, Pa., took a different route, taking a deeper look into the impact that religion has had on the lives of Costa Rican women. While the official religion is Roman Catholicism, she is also studying the Protestant church that has experienced significant growth over the years. "Many women have mentioned how their involvement in various church organizations has improved their status at home and given them opportunities for leadership in other areas," Speigle said.

According to Speigle's research, Costa Rican women form a large percentage of all religious groups in the country, especially Pentecostalism, even though limited research has examined women's religious involvement. "There are a number of ways that women can be empowered through their participation in religious groups," Speigle said. "Household changes, community support and opportunities for leadership are some of the ways that Costa Rican women have been positively affected by religion."

As women's studies minors, Halder and Speigle were able to apply their knowledge as they heard women's stories and learned from a different context than their own.

Halder has been able to apply her wide range of skills acquired at Goshen through her project. "As a communication major, I have acquired a multitude of skills including radio, voice recording, minor video editing skills, writing, journalism, research and more," Halder said. This summer "I am using every single one of those communication skills."

"I am excited by things that challenge me, and my assumptions about life and religion in Costa Rica have definitely been challenged," Speigle said. "I am constantly learning not to make assumptions, and to understand things I am researching within a Costa Rican context."

While the amount of research has been a lot of work, both say it has been fulfilling and worthwhile. Halder is passionate about women's studies and has plans to continue educating herself on issues of women's studies throughout graduate school. "It's fantastic knowing that I'm doing something that is applicable for the rest of my life, and it's just another step towards my future," she said.

For more information on women's studies in Costa Rica, visit

-By Julie Weirich

Editors: For more information about this release, to arrange an interview or request a photo, contact Goshen College News Bureau Director Jodi H. Beyeler at (574) 535-7572 or


Goshen College, established in 1894, is a residential Christian liberal arts college rooted in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition. The college's Christ-centered core values – passionate learning, global citizenship, compassionate peacemaking and servant-leadership – prepare students as leaders for the church and world. Recognized for its unique Study-Service Term program, Goshen has earned citations of excellence in Barron's Best Buys in Education, "Colleges of Distinction," "Making a Difference College Guide" and U.S. News & World Report's "America's Best Colleges" edition, which named Goshen a "least debt college." Visit


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