A Costa Rican Sabbatical Yields Many Surprises for Mark Hatch Family

By Greg Collette ’12 

There were 4:30 a.m. wake-up calls from howler monkeys, a two-mile walk (each way) to the grocery store, no television or Internet, and poisonous snakes. Costa Rica, besides the poisonous snakes, was the perfect place for Mark Hatch, Colorado College’s vice president for enrollment management, to take his administrative sabbatical.

            For Hatch and his family, it was the trip of a lifetime.

            After a quarter of a century working in admissions at four private colleges, Hatch was ready for a break. Feeling, sometimes, due to the cyclical nature of admissions that he was running on a treadmill, Hatch wanted an adventure. He wanted a place where he could write and reflect, a place where he and his family could reconnect and not be distracted by the trappings of American life. A sabbatical in the small town of Monteverde in Puntarenas, Costa Rica, offered the perfect opportunity.

            Established in the 1950s by Quakers who opposed the American draft during the Korean War, the town of Monteverde is considered one of Costa Rica’s Seven Wonders. The town is well-known to ecotourists for its nature preserve, Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso Monteverde. The 26,000 acres, set aside by the Quakers in the 1970s, draws 70,000 visitors a year. Despite the influx of large numbers of international tourists, the town still remains relatively small and Costa Rican with only 7,000 residents – of which only 700 are American.

            Life in Monteverde was nothing like the Hatches had ever experienced. Their house had little in the way of the conveniences of living in the United States.  In addition to no Internet and television, they also had no car. But without the normal distractions separating everyone, Hatch and his family were able to reconnect. After dinner, the kids couldn’t retreat to the TV or computer. Instead, the time between dinner and bedtime was filled with family readings and storytelling.

            Outside of their home, everything was completely different. Instead of squirrels on their front porch, often there were toucans. One morning, Hatch recalls, there were eight toucans sitting on their porch chatting away. Although the flora and fauna were the most visible differences, the language and culture were the most daunting. For Hatch’s wife and daughters, they posed little challenge. Hatch’s wife knew Spanish and was taking classes in it; by the time they returned to America in December, Hatch’s 8-year-old had an 11th grade proficiency in the language.

            For Hatch, however, it was a different story. Having taken French growing up, attempting to communicate with many of the locals was nearly impossible at first. By the end of his stay, he was able to let a taxi driver know where he wanted to go, but often, his 8-year-old would translate for him, an experience he describes as “a proud one for a dad, but horrible for a 45-year-old man.”

            The language barrier did not stop Hatch from engaging in the community while in Monteverde. He began working at the school his daughters attended, the pre-K through 11th grade Centro de Educación Creativa, or the Cloud Forest School. Sitting on a pristine 106-acre campus located in the rainforest, the 200-student school focuses heavily on environmental stewardship.

            Hatch taught courses on environmental education at the bilingual school. He spent 15-20 hours a week teaching both inside and outside of the classroom. For Hatch the courses he taught were a great way to engage with the students. They spent time in the local forests, doing everything from planting trees to testing water samples. And despite a student body that is 90 percent Costa Rican, Hatch found little trouble communicating with the students, which he credits to them, saying that the students were extremely good to him.

            It seemed Hatch’s sabbatical was going to be spent doing things that were completely different from what he was used to at home. In August, the school hired an interim director after the previous director left. The new director was a local parent and did not have any administrative experience. It was not long before she asked Hatch to come in and look at the school budget. They realized that the school was in serious financial trouble. Almost overnight, Hatch’s 15-20 hours of work per week doubled. The long hours, though tiring, were not a burden.

            “Helping the school became a huge passion,” he said.

            Originally, he planned on spending much of his time writing and reflecting, but working to keep the school from closing became a huge priority, second only to his family.  Yet, Hatch still gained much insight from the experience.

            “It made me incredibly appreciative of CC,” he said. When Hatch left for his sabbatical, CC had just endured one of its toughest economic years in recent memory. In fact, Hatch had been approved for his sabbatical in May 2008, but with the recession hitting the country and the school, he decided to defer his leave until the following year.

             Although he already was amazed at how CC handled the financial crisis during the 2008-09 school year, his time in Costa Rica put a new light on how well CC was handling the economic recession. His experience also made him miss his work back at CC. Despite the cold welcome of January weather when he returned to campus, Hatch said it’s good to be back helping students begin their futures here at Colorado College.

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