Are you considering studying abroad in Panama? Wondering what it’s really like, and whether it’s the right fit for you? We asked Kendall (SFS Panama / University of California – Santa Barbara) to give us her top reasons to study abroad in Panama. Here’s what she had to say!
Bocas del Toro is a place unlike many others. With a blend of many people, cultures, and perspectives present in this archipelago there is a lot to take in at first. Luckily, part of our program allows students to go out and engage with this crazy, beautiful, colorful, and diverse community that surrounds us during our time here. This semester our projects include swim lessons with local girls from Bocas del Drago, fundraising to support the rainforest trails of an indigenous Ngobe community on Isla Popa, starting a straw-free campaign in Bocas Town, and mentoring pre-teens from the community of Old Bank on Bastimentos. This past Saturday the Swim Team and WOMP community outreach groups collaborated and hosted more than 20 local kids at the SFS Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies (TIBS). Those few hours were full of laughter, learning, and lots of splashing. The straw campaign hosted the educational directors of the local sea turtle conservancy for dinner this week to discuss collaboration and ideas for the “Sin Carizo Por Favor” Campaign. Other students went to a local retirement community and assisted the staff with providing their residents with daily services to make their lives more comfortable. We get to not only live at the beautiful center for a semester, but get a deeper understanding of the realities of the people who live here and what it really means to be Bocatorreno.
This semester has given us the opportunity to make lots of pals. Our TIBS program in Panama began with 16 students and 11-ish staff which we now refer to as old pals. Due to Hurricane Irma, we gained 15 students and about staff members from the SFS Turks and Caicos program who are lovingly referred to as our new pals. The center is also officially home to two canine pals (Webster and JuneBug) but unofficially welcoming to various neighborhood canine pals who come around often looking for love from students and faculty (Rodger is the favorite but don’t tell the others.) The task of the semester has been to successfully blend these communities into a program where we live, eat, study, sleep and travel together. After creating our community contract and electing our student representatives, I’d say we’re well on our way to creating a close-knit bond between students and faculty that will make our time here that much more enriching and special.
One thing that universally applies to most college students is that we’re always hungry and we love food. Luckily, there are many opportunities here to satisfy our cravings and step outside our comfort zones when it comes to cuisine. At the center, we are spoiled by Dama. Susi and Marga our wonderful chefs who provide us with and endless supply of homemade hummus, plantain chips, and fresh juicy pineapple. We have also gotten a taste of some traditional local cuisine while on our field trips to local Ngobe communities. Last week we were treated to tasting cacao in many different stages as it is transformed from a fruit to rich dark chocolate at Finca Oreba.
The natural beauty here in Bocas is indisputable. Not only is our center on a beautiful waterfront with our classroom/dock literally on the water, but during our time here so far, we have been able to take in lots of beautiful scenery in Panama City, our visit to hospital point (arguably the most breathtaking spot I’ve ever been) and during our strolls in the rainforest. I wake up every morning to a backyard that literally looks like something off a post-card and we find new scenic spots all the time.
The nice thing about Bocas del Toro is that there are always things to do. Through our classes we explore most of the islands in the archipelago and visit other parts of Panama on fieldtrips. We also have time to check out hostels, restaurants, nightlife, and even neighboring countries during our weekends away and mid-program break. Students thus far have taken advantage of surfing lessons, night snorkels, and getting their PADI scuba certifications while here in Bocas. There are also lots of hiking trails and beautiful beaches to enjoy all within a short boat or taxi ride from the center.
Everyone here at TIBS comes from different backgrounds, disciplines, and life experiences. Some of us have been planning for months to be here in Bocas, while others had little time to prepare at all. Despite our varying expectations something has brought us all here, and we each have something unique to learn. We get the opportunity to learn from each other, learn from this place, and learn more about ourselves. After the adventure that has been our first month in Panama, I am certain we will all gain insight, wisdom and perspective during the remainder of our time here together.