Posted: September 18, 2017

As the Fall 2017 SFS students begin to settle into their new homes around the world, we asked them to share their impressions of the experience so far. Sabrina DeLeonibus had this to say about SFS Panama:

When you’re a pre-med student- let alone a bio student- there is an element of regimented schedules and stiff expectations that surrounds your field of study. But you’re still a bio major. You want to study medicine but learning about plants and animals is intriguing. Ecosystems are captivating and you quickly realize there is a huge world of biodiversity begging to be studied. I guess that’s how I landed here at SFS in Bocas. I know that in the future I have a calling for medicine but in the present I want to know what it’s like to be an ecological biologist during a time when the world needs scientific conservation solutions. I feel SFS offers that. It is marketed towards young, curious biologists itching to make an impact and curious enough to throw themselves into an unexpected adventure. So, in doing some research, I found a beautiful island that allowed me to pursue my passion.

That’s the other aspect. An unexpected adventure in a country that I would have otherwise never visited. Panama- specifically Bocas del Toro- is indescribable. How cliché- I know- but in all honesty that’s what this island is. Indescribable. There are no words to encompass the visual beauty of clear water or swaying palm trees that greet me in the mornings. The symphony of animal calls that carry on throughout out the day and the smells of local food cooking on food carts. I had no idea what I was stepping into but my first impression of my new home can be summed up in a word: paradise. Bocas is a hidden gem from the mainstream tourism that occupies most Caribbean islands. There is culture, there is beauty, and most importantly there is endless biodiversity sitting in the back yard.

It is quite strange to consider this place my home. If you had asked me two years ago if I saw myself living in a field station on a remote island in Panama I would have thought you were on drugs. Now, I can’t imagine my life away from the SFS station. I love this place. It is so comfortable and homey. I feel like I am a part of a community. A family. I have enough space to be alone when need be but I’m also connected to all of my classmates for collaboration or just to chat. To tell the truth, I expected to be roughing it for 3 months and pooping in a hole. That couldn’t be further from reality. The rooms are spacious and air conditioned, the classroom is captivating, and the setting looks like it belongs on the front cover of a resort magazine. I am content and continue to live in a state of excited disbelief that I can conduct science in such a cozy, welcoming environment.

I know in all my newly discovered bliss there lies challenges for the future. I do not have a Spanish-speaking background. I was one of those kids that felt the need to be different and took Chinese, Latin, and French during high school. Needless to say, I’m picking the language up quickly and look for every opportunity to implement my Spanish lessons in everyday interaction. Academically, I have never been an “outdoorsy” person so the forest walks will be an obstacle I will have to overcome fast. The first day of being here I saw a spider the size of my hand and immediately considered purchasing a plane ticket home. It is now day ten and I am still here despite my raging arachnophobia. I can already tell that, regardless of the perceived challenges ahead, I will acquire skills in the field that I will carry with me for the rest of my life as a scientist.

As I do look ahead, I can’t help but be excited for the person I will be in three months. This program is intense but in the best possible way. That being said, this experience will change me. I have to come to terms with cultural shock, mild discomfort, language barriers, and a whole plethora of obstacles I did not account for when considering my study abroad experience. I am excited to learn from my professors- who are all fascinating, intelligent people. I expect to become stronger both emotionally and physically. I look to be more culturally aware and pay attention to the world outside of the United States. In general, I think SFS will allow me to grow holistically as a human being and that is the most exciting part.

My first impression obviously has been a positive experience. I was really worried that I would struggle to find my niche or even fit into the program at all. However, I can only describe myself as eager, focused, and very, very happy. It won’t be perfect but it will be the best adventure I have ever taken on in my life. I’ve already burned through ten days in Panama and I’m hoping the next 90 will slow down a little. In the meantime, I will continue to cherish every moment in my new home.

→ Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in Panama