Finding Home in Costa Rica: A Canadian Undergraduate Student’s Co-Op Experience

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Editor’s Note: Combining the disciplines of economics, political science, geography, and other social sciences, an international development degree is both rigorous and deeply rooted in theory. The International Development Studies Program Co-op at the University of Toronto Scarborough provides undergraduate students with a unique opportunity to bridge theory and practice through an 8-12 month work placement in the international development field. This article is part 1 of a 2 part series written by students currently on their co-op placements.

“International Development”

When I first stumbled across the website International Development Studies program at the University of Toronto Scarborough, at the age of eighteen, I knew that I wanted to apply. Students in this program study for three years and then are given the opportunity to work in the international development field throughout their fourth year. As I read more about the field of International Development, and more specifically this program, it seemed like it was directly tailored to all of my interests. Driven by a sense of wanderlust and a desire to learn more about this world, I decided to apply.

I still remember the day I was accepted into the program, as I immediately began dancing in my home with happiness and calling all my friends and family. From that day forward, all I could think about was the anticipated co-op placement. 

In the early stages of my university program, I quickly learned that the concept of “international development” didn’t align with my preconceptions. My initial three years unfolded more as a period of unlearning than actual learning.

In the early stages of my university program, I quickly learned that the concept of “international development” didn’t align with my preconceptions. My initial three years unfolded more as a period of unlearning than actual learning. It felt like every class held a mirror up to what not to do in the international development field. Discussions centered around failed projects, challenges posed by missionaries, and the recurrent theme of the white savior complex. Throughout this period, I began to deeply question my plan to pursue international development. However, recognizing the potential for growth, I decided to persist and continue learning more about the discipline. This choice, albeit uncertain at the time, evolved into a transformative learning experience, one that I now reflect upon with gratitude.


Throughout my third year in this program, my classmates and I were presented with job descriptions for potential co-op placements in a variety of sectors of International Development, ranging from global health, to environmental sustainability, to inclusive economics. 

When I read the job posting for Project Assistant for the social enterprise Wearsos, it immediately seemed like a perfect fit. This feminist social enterprise empowers women artisans in the rural community of Turrialba, Costa Rica by offering them full-time, ethical employment opportunities. The project was started by a fellow Canadian and alumni from my university program, making it feel like a true full-circle moment.  

The unique aspect of this organization is that it predominantly uses upcycled materials, diverting waste from the landfill.

The unique aspect of this organization is that it predominantly uses upcycled materials, diverting waste from the landfill. The fashion industry causes significant harm to the environment, annually consuming 79 trillion liters of water and producing  92 million tonnes of waste. The fast fashion industry adheres to a business model centered on the ever-increasing production of low-quality goods. However, in recent years there have been increasing efforts for a more sustainable fashion industry, including reducing waste through upcycling (Niinimäki et al. 2020). While recycling breaks down waste in order to create something new, upcycling uses products in their current state in order to produce something of higher value. Upcycling was once seen as a niche fashion industry, but in recent years it has become widely spread across the fashion industry, recognized as an avenue to reduce the fashion industry’s environmental impact. 

I have always been passionate about environmental sustainability, so, when I learned that Wearsos was addressing social and gender issues, while directly contributing to waste reduction through upcycling, I knew that I wanted to be a part of this project. 

Costa Rica

Finally, after years of anticipation, on one Friday afternoon in July, the moment had finally arrived: the start of my co-op placement. 

I boarded a plane from Toronto, Canada destined for San Jose, Costa Rica. As the hours passed, I felt myself moving further and further away from any sense of familiarity and towards a country that I had never visited. As I exited the plane, I was immediately surrounded by a new culture, nature I had never seen, people I had never met, and a language I could not understand. The familiarity I had known all my life–a laugh shared with true friends, a hug from my mom, a walk with my dog, were over 6000 km away. All of the excitement for my “co-op” placement was replaced with nerves as I realized the gravity of not seeing home for nearly a year. Will I ever adapt to my life here? Will I even make it through the entire ten months? I asked myself these questions as I began my new life in Costa Rica. 

However, as the days passed the longing for home was replaced with a sense of adventure and the warmth of Costa Rican culture. This little town–while remote and inconvenient–is also one of the most loving and open-armed communities I’ve ever experienced. Spanish–while endlessly frustrating and seemingly impossible to learn–is also one of the most beautiful languages I’ve ever heard and gives me the capacity to connect with wonderful souls. The food–while far more monotonous than I’m accustomed to–fuels my body and allows me to connect to the community around me. 

Hikers in Costa Rica
Finding Community in Costa Rica.


One constant presence in my life here in Costa Rica is my job, which I grow to love more and more with each passing day. 

Wearsos is a proud partner of the Southwest Airlines® Repurpose with Purpose program, the airline’s signature Global Sustainability Initiative. Every four years, a Southwest Airlines aircraft undergoes a refresh, which includes replacing its aircraft seat coverings. Once the aircraft seat leather is removed it finds a new purpose through Repurpose with Purpose. This program donates the leather to over ten partner organizations, helping give thousands of pounds of leather new life every year. Beyond waste diversion, this program uses the leather airline seats as a catalyst for genuine social change, in the case of Wearsos this is to empower, employ, and educate women artisans in rural Costa Rica. While many large corporations engage in corporate social responsibility, the Repurpose with Purpose global sustainability initiative stands out as a unique and impactful program in my learning experience.

Over the past six months with Wearsos, I’ve been fortunate to witness remarkable growth. Our increasing sales not only reflect economic opportunities, but also directly contribute to an enhanced social impact in the town of Turrialba. This growth enables us to extend employment opportunities to more women and implement additional educational and empowerment programs. Who could have imagined that a small project started by a Canadian and partnered with an American airline could have such a profound social and environmental impact in a small town in Costa Rica?

Because Wearsos is still in the start-up phase, I can actually help lay the groundwork for the future of the organization, which has been a great learning experience. For instance, alongside my boss, Chris, we have been developing a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system to provide better customer service and track our sales. As an International Development student, I had never heard the term “sales pipeline,” but I have now learned how to develop one from scratch. I am assigned a great variety of different projects and tasks–from scheduling meetings, to applying for impact investments, to creating excel sheets to track inventory. My day-to-day work tasks consist of a lot of hours in front of the computer, completing the behind-the-scenes work that is essential for any organization to run successfully. While I will only be working for Wearsos for three more months, I am excited to witness the growth that they will experience in the coming years, and the impact that they will have on the people of Turrialba and beyond. 

Throughout this experience, I’ve learned that we can’t think of social and environmental issues just in our home country, but instead we must recognize the interconnected world around us. 

Throughout this experience, I’ve learned that we can’t think of social and environmental issues just in our home country, but instead we must recognize the interconnected world around us. 

Amber McNeil teaching English to Wearsos coworkers in Costa Rica.
Teaching my co-workers English in a weekly after-work English class.


The past six months have been filled with many firsts. I experienced my first job at a social enterprise and my first time living outside of Canada. While many of these changes were scary and uncomfortable, I am forever grateful for my decision to embark on this journey. 

In Canada, it was the massive Great lakes, beautiful snow, and winding pine tree forests that taught me to love the world around me. Now in Turrialba, I am surrounded by towering mountains and daily rain showers, and I am just beginning to appreciate the vastness of this wonderful world. The familiarity that I longed for so greatly as I stepped off that airplane has dissipated, as I have learned that home can be found in just about anywhere on this Earth

Wearsos employees at Christmas Party
Wearsos Christmas Party at a Cacao Farm.
Feature Image: The Turrialba Volcano. Photo courtesy of Amber McNeil.


Niinimäki, Kirsi, Greg Peters, Helena Dahlbo, Patsy Perry, Timo Rissanen, and Alison Gwilt. “The environmental price of fast fashion.” Nature Reviews Earth & Environment 1, no. 4 (2020): 189-200.

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Amber McNeil

Amber is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto in the Specialist International Development Co-Op program. Previously, she was a research assistant for the Feeding City Lab and Sustainable Food and Farming Futures Cluster housed at UofT. Currently, she is living and working in Turrialba, Costa Rica on a Co-Op placement.

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