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Studying at the University of Peace in Costa Rica: A tropical gateway to the UN

An interview with Robert Serry, chairman of UPEACE Centre The Hague, following his visit to Costa Rica's University for Peace. He returned with a special deal for students from Europe: a big reduction on the tuition fee, and the possibility for an internship with the United Nations.

Photo: Chairman of UPEACE Centre The Hague Robert Serry at the UPEACE campus in Costa Rica with rector Francisco Rojas Aravena (r) and dean Juan Carlos Sainz-Borgo (l) 


An international university devoted to peace and conflict management studies on top of a lush, green, tropical mountain: that is the unusual setting of the University for Peace (UPEACE) in Costa Rica

Robert Serry, the new chairman of UPEACE Centre The Hague – which represents the University in Europe – was there and shares his experiences. He returned with a special deal for students from Europe: a big reduction on the tuition fee, alongside the possibility for an internship with the United Nations.


Can you describe the scenery of the UPEACE university in Costa Rica? How does it feel to be there?


I must tell you: it was a very special experience. A school bus from the University picked me up after my arrival in San José, the Costa Rican capital. We drove about 30 kilometes out of town, up a hill from the San José plain. As the road became narrower, we were overwhelmed by the beauty surrounding us. We passed by coffee plantations, and magnificent trees that reach into the sky. And then, up on this “cloud forest”, a jungle high on a mountain, we came at a little village, turned left, and arrived at the University for Peace.


The University itself is a complex of beautiful one-story buildings, and the classrooms all have large windows overlooking the valley. It’s a very pleasant and green surrounding. Also, it’s less hot than down in the valley, but still warm.


Are the students living on a campus?


No. Every morning they are bused to the university and brought back at the end of the day to Ciudad Colon, a small town at the foot of the hill. Most of the students live there during their study at UPEACE, either with local families or in small places they rent. They can also live in San José if they wish, but most prefer to be in Ciudad Colon.


It sounds like a pleasant, peaceful place for academic reflection.


Exactly! The calm and the beauty of this place have an immediate impact on your own thoughts, that’s at least what happened to me. If you are looking for a quiet and inspiring environment to end your studies with a master’s thesis, I can hardly think of a better place. It was really beautiful!


How many students are now studying at UPEACE?


At this moment about 140 students are following a nine-month Master of Arts Programme there in two semesters. These students are evenly spread out between the three disciplines that are offered at UPEACE. Each of these three MA Programmes consists of mainly three-weeks courses. 


About one third of the students at UPEACE follow the International Law MA, where they can choose between two directions: Human rights, or Settlement of disputes. The Department of Peace and Conflict studies has some 40 students and offers four different MA degrees: International peace studies; Media, peace and conflict studies; Gender and peace building; and Peace education.

Finally, the last tier of students follows courses on Environment and Development, with two programmes: Environment, development and peace; and Responsible management and sustainable development. For students who are interested in environmental issues, Costa Rica is a very interesting place with its extensive natural reserves.


Where are all these students coming from?


They come from everywhere, it’s a truly international environment. It’s almost like a little UN world, with people from different backgrounds and nationalities. 


There is always a group of students from Asia, thanks to the Asian Peacebuilders Scholarship programme provided by Japan’s Nippon Foundation, which allows for 30 Asian students per academic year to study in Costa Rica. There are also many students from the America’s, both Latin America as well as Canada and the United States, and quite a few Europeans. I saw some German students at UPEACE, and one or two from the Netherlands. I cannot speak for them, but I did not get the impression that they regretted their choice.


But I feel that there is a lot more scope to attract European students to come and study at UPEACE. And that’s what we at UPH are going to work on.


What’s the advantage for students to go to Costa Rica and study at UPEACE?


Aside from offering a very interesting academic programme in a marvellous environment, UPEACE has another unique advantage: it can be a port of entry for students who are interested in a career within the United Nations. One of the peculiarities of the UPEACE programme is that you can complete your study either by writing a thesis, or by way of an internship. And you may choose to do your internship with one of the UN institutions. After all, this is a UN-mandated university with strong contacts relations within the UN.


So now, at last, I have an answer to the question that students often ask me when I give lectures to them: “How did you get into the UN, and how can I get into the UN?”

Well, my suggestion to them is: Consider this university. Because it offers a very practical way to, first: check if you feel at home within an international environment, and secondly: to get your first work experience within a UN agency. 


I feel that this is one of the great assets of this small university. Thanks to its network of contacts, UPEACE has never had a problem yet in ensuring internships within the UN system for students who chose this option. They can pursue a three months internship which is evaluated by the UN agency where they are working, but also supervised from Costa Rica. If you have done that in a satisfactory way, you have your MA.


Did you get a sense during your visit why these students chose to study in Costa Rica at UPEACE?


Unfortunately, I did not have enough time to speak with many students myself during my visit. But UPEACE has a strong alumni network. If you check the University’s Alumni webpage, you can get a good understanding of the reasons why they went to study in Costa Rica. Some arrived as students to finish their academic formation, others were already professionally active and came to UPEACE because they opted for a fundamental change in their career. You’ll see that a significant number of alumni end up with international organisations or with national public organisations, including ministries of foreign affairs.


And as you mentioned, a study at UPEACE allows you to see a beautiful part of the world.


Yes, and this is an asset for UPEACE that we want to develop with them. We are looking at the possibility of offering students to come to UPEACE for a shorter period of time: for one semester, or even to follow only one or two of the three-week courses that are offered by the university.


This will allow anyone who is interested in UPEACE to come and test the waters, to experience how it is to study in this beautiful place before deciding to do a full Master’s. Also, these students can grasp this opportunity to visit this wonderful region. Study and tourism: I think this can be a great combination for young people! 


Will students who opt for the shorter UPEACE programme also be able to obtain study credits which they can also use at their home university?


This is certainly our goal, but it will depend among others on the rules of your own university. That is why UPEACE is keen to increase its partnerships with other universities.


We have a very fine example of this sort of co-operation: The Hague University for Applied Studies (THUAS) has just agreed to enter into a partnership with UPEACE. Students can follow a year-long MBA Responsible Management that will include a two-month in Costa Rica on peace and conflict. We are certainly going to explore more of these opportunities to set up partnerships with Dutch and other European unversities.


Besides the partnership with THUAS, can The Hague – as a centre of international justice and a “city of peace and justice” – also have a special role for the University for Peace?


Absolutely, and in that sense it’s a good thing that the University has a representative office like our Centre here in The Hague. UPEACE has asked me to explore whether there can be opportunities for students from Costa Rica to come to The Hague. The goal would be for them to familiarise themselves with the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Court and other judicial institutions here. And during their stay, the UPEACE students would also be able to follow a course or a workshop on related issues with a partner university over here. 


Is it expensive to follow a nine-month study at UPEACE in Costa Rica?


Here I have some good news for European students who are interested in studying at the University for Peace. In order to make their stay financially more accessible, interested students from Europe who will appy for the University for Peace through the office of our UPEACE Centre in The Hague will be eligible for a 30% reduction of the fee. I hope that this will be an incentive to come and study in Costa Rica. This arrangement will soon be formalised. 


So if a student from Europe is interested in studying at UPEACE, what is the best way for him or her to go about it: contact Costa Rica, or the UPEACE Centre in The Hague?


Students can approach us for guidance and information on the application procedure and the 30% reduction on the tuition fee. We can also help to provide other relevant information, for example on obtaining a visum for Costa Rica (which may be an issue for some countries). In the end, they will have to directly apply to the University in Costa Rica with all the documents that are needed for the University to consider whether they are entitled.


But UPEACE Centre The Hague will play an important facilitating role in this. We will be responsive and pro-active to the interest and wishes of students in the Netherlands and elsewhere in Europe who want to study at UPEACE.


Diederik Kramers

27 April 2018



One of the Class Notes left by alumni on the UPEACE web site: 


Thury Bjork BJORGVINSDOTTIR – Media Peace and Conflict Studies, Class of 2011


“I was promoted to Information Specialist for the Office of the Iceland Foreign Minister, and I was allowed to implement most of the suggestions I made in my MA thesis for UPEACE (#Diplomacy, How Social Media is Utilized by Diplomats @ Work).

Life is good, but man oh man how I sometimes miss the Costa Rican weather!”


Current location: Iceland.