Senor Damaso, 102, regaled Amy Kostelic’s study abroad class with tales of his younger days. Damaso lives in Nicoya, Costa Rica, a Blue Zone that has a higher concentration of centenarians than other places in the world.


The lesson of a lifetime came for a group of 12 education abroad students in Nicoya, Costa Rica, in 2018 when they spent nine days learning life lessons about health and well-being from some of the world’s longest-lived people.

The Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica is one of five international Blue Zones or aging hot spots.  More people live to be 100 or older in these places than in any other place on earth. Residents in Nicoya attribute their health and longevity to sunshine, sense of purpose, eating light and drinking water, physical activity in the form of work, family, and embracing tradition.

Family Sciences’ Amy Kostelic lead a study abroad class to Nicoya, Costa Rica, in May 2018. There they met Joseph Bonifacio Villegas on his 101st birthday. They helped him celebrate by bringing party hats and cake

Family Sciences’ Amy Kostelic lead a study abroad class to Nicoya, Costa Rica, in May 2018. There they met Joseph Bonifacio Villegas on his 101st birthday. They helped him celebrate by bringing party hats and cake, even though this is not a Nicoyan tradition. By the end of the party, everyone participated in the American custom.


To experience the “pura vida,” the students started one of their days with a visit with Senora Mendoza, a 101-year-old woman who shared advice and humorous stories. Then they met Senor Damaso, a 102-year-old self-described playboy who good-naturedly spoke about his days as a young man and his continued passion for dancing. Senor Damaso’s daughters, who are in their 70s and 80s, taught the students to make empanadas over a wood-fired outdoor oven. Then it was off to a traditional lunch and tour of the 150-year-old house of Casona de Santa Barbara, followed by a surprise tortilla-making lesson from yet another centenarian who passed down the tradition to her grandchildren.

Students capped this day with a birthday party to celebrate Joseph Bonifacio Villegas’s 101st birthday.  Students got off the bus carrying a special cake and wearing party hats, which Senor Villegas and his family and friends had clearly never seen. Students were welcomed to the party with open arms.  They danced, sang, and engaged with Senor Villegas and his best friend of 96 years, Trinidad.  Senor Villegas received a new saddle for his horse, which he still rides daily, and he even took the students for short rides.

Joseph Bonifacio Villegas celebrates his 101st birthday in May 2018 by breaking in the new saddle he received as a gift. Amy Kostelic’s study abroad class visited Villegas in Nicoya, Costa Rica.

The lasting impact of that special day went beyond obvious fun and delicious food. Education abroad provided the students with an opportunity to experience healthy aging in action. The people they encountered provided a unique insight that students can ascribe to their own health and overall well-being into their golden years. In addition to special visits with centenarians, the group also hiked in the Barra Honda National Park, visited a hospital and health-care facilities, and danced with traditional Costa Rican dancers.

That experience was led by Dr. Amy Kostelic, associate extension professor in the Department of Family Sciences, and Lois Davis, RN, from the College of Nursing. Kostelic teaches Life Course Human Development to undergraduate students and directs education abroad programs to Greece, Costa Rica, and Sweden. 

The focus of these programs allows students to experience the ways in which lifestyle, health-care, and community contribute to overall health, well-being, and life quality. “If you can teach this to younger people, and they live well throughout their life, they have a better chance at being healthier longer in the end,” she said.

Students visit environments like the Blue Zones, which were identified by Dan Buettner, a National Geographic Fellow and best-selling author. These five places — Okinawa, Japan; Sardinia, Italy; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Ikaria, Greece; and Loma Linda, Calif. — are home to the world’s healthiest and longest-lived people. On the other hand, the average life expectancy of Americans is 78.6 years old, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.

Kostelic leads study abroad classes to Greece and Costa Rica to allow students to see the common characteristics that these Blue Zone populations experience. Kostelic said older people in these zones have strong social connections, healthy diets, enjoy physical activity, and have a sense of purpose or spirituality.

In May, Kostelic, Tracey Werner-Wilson, director of the UK Family Center, and graduate assistant Alyssa Campbell will take a class to Stockholm, Sweden, to learn about the health-care system from cradle to grave. They will begin their tour in a labor and delivery ward and end their week with a tour of a funeral home and cemetery.

Though not a Blue Zone, “They (Swedish people) rank high on scales of happiness and overall well-being,” Kostelic said. And she thinks that seeing how the Swedish welfare state is organized and works on all levels will empower student learning beyond the classroom.

The Stockholm program will involve lectures and visits with researchers and health-care officials, as well as tours of various health-care facilities. Students also will experience the Scandinavian culture, which embraces and respects nature. “The city is very clean, and they have a lot of recycling programs. There’s not a lot of graffiti and garbage,” Kostelic said.  The Swedish culture embraces the idea of “lagom,” which means “just enough” or finding a state of being that is middle ground or “just right”.

Later in May, Kostelic will be traveling with a different type of student. She will direct a School of Human Environmental Sciences (HES) study tour to Ikaria, Greece. This particular program to Ikaria, the “island where people forget to die,” is the culmination of a yearlong grant project between Kansas State University and UK. Throughout this grant, extension agents taught community participants and Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association members ways to embrace aging through healthy lifestyles. The study tour participants include extension agents from both UK and KSU, members of the Kentucky Extension Homemakers Association and members of UK’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institution.

“There’s just something different in the air there (Ikaria),” she said. “Our lecture halls will be farms, churches, and kitchens.” Kostelic hopes these adult participants will take what they observe and experience during their 12 days abroad and apply it to themselves and their work when they return to the United States. “There is just more you can understand about a culture by traveling among them that you can’t get from sitting in the classroom.”

Author: Alyssa Simms