This program really gives students an understanding of marine environments, terrestrial environments, social environments, and the intricate way they are all intertwined.

 
For as long as I can remember, I have always wanted to study abroad. I spent so much time considering where I may spend my time abroad and what I may want to do there. Would I want to explore the windy streets of old European cities or would I maybe find myself in the outback of Australia? Never once did I think I would find myself studying the human impact on ecosystems in Panama, but I can now confidently tell you – there is not one place I would rather be.

The program in Panama focuses on ecosystem health and the potential impact of the human world. The Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies (TIBS) is located just a short boat ride away from Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park, which is the area the bulk of our studies are focused on. This area is incredibly beautiful on and off the land. There is such rich biodiversity in this area and for this reason, it is super cool to have hands-on fieldwork. One of my favorite parts of this program so far is being able to identify different species of the area. For example, here is a ginglymostomatidae (nurse shark):
 

 
I still think this is the most incredible thing ever. Instead of sitting in a lecture hall, I get to swim with sharks and learn about the environment they live in. We have learned about the degradation of corals in the Bocas area due to increasing water temperatures, hypoxia, and potential human negligence. We also have learned about the impact of overfishing not only on the ecosystems here but also the way it affects local communities’ economic well-being. We also focus on the terrestrial environment of the region. We have spent time talking about the ways banana plantations have led to deforestation and the loss of biodiversity in the area. Fortunately, after some time, many forests have grown back and the forest biodiversity is now beginning to flourish!
 

Strawberry Poison Dart Frog. Photo by Laura Bruce-Rodriguez.
 
We have also been lucky enough to safely interact with the community during COVID! This part of the program has also been one of my favorites. We have come to understand the history of this area and the way it affected the local and Indigenous people. One of the community activities we have done is a tour of the Timorogo community. Rotilio, one of the community leaders, explained the dynamics of their Indigenous communities and their sustainable tourism pursuits. He took us on a long boat ride through the mangroves where we saw different species of sloths, crabs, and birds. Rotilio walked us through the terrestrial part of Isla Bastimentos National Marine Park, which was beautiful, and we even got to see the entrance of a bat cave! Through these experiences and in-depth lectures, SFS has educated us on the social dynamics of conservation. I think this has helped me understand how to ethically pursue protecting the environment.
 

 
This program really gives students an understanding of marine environments, terrestrial environments, social environments, and the intricate way they are all intertwined. SFS has provided such a unique and hands-on experience that I don’t think I would have experienced all of college if I did not opt to study with them. The program structure allows you to learn from your professors in ways you could not even imagine. Not only are you learning from them, but I feel like all the other students you are surrounded by are all super engaged and creative thinkers, which has only enhanced my learning experience more. I do not think I can speak more highly of SFS Panama. If you are thinking of studying here, you absolutely should. It is something that I know will help form what I do in the future and really gives you a great understanding of what you love. This experience is engaging and will teach you more than you could ever learn in a lecture hall. I cannot express the gratitude I feel towards everyone here at TIBS. It is an inspiring experience and if you are considering it, I can promise it will be the best decision you will ever make.
 

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Curious to learn a bit more about the SFS Panama Center? Click here to read about why we’re based there, our environmental research focus, how we connect and support the local community, and even take a tour of the Center.