By: Sequoia Wheelan

Posted: November 10, 2021
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Alumni Post

Alumna Letter: Sandy Toes, Tangled Hair, and Salty Skin


I have been away from Panama for about three months now, and the nostalgia and longing I feel for the month I spent there is still just as strong as it was when I boarded that plane home.


Close your eyes.

Imagine that you are on a beach, the hot, golden sand shifting beneath your feet, enveloping your toes as you wiggle them deeper into the grains. The sound of rustling palm leaves blowing in the breeze and the lapping of the Caribbean Ocean waves dominate the acoustic space which, when coupled with the humid, salty air, creates a tropical paradise.

Referring to a place as ‘paradise’ is quite a grandiose statement to make, but Panama is one of the few locations that fits this description. I firmly believe that in order for a place to be paradisiacal, it needs to be mentally stimulating as well as visually attractive. Hence, the allure of studying abroad here. You learn to appreciate the sandy beaches, coral reefs, mangroves, and rainforests in a much more nuanced and intellectual way. For example, you can snorkel in a reef and identify the different fish that swim past you, peeking in and out of the sea whips. Instead of looking at a fish and merely thinking about how pretty it is, you can instead identify the fish by the common and latin name, understand its role in the food chain, and even evaluate its impact in the marine environment. You gain so much more appreciation for each organism when you can understand the context and environment that surrounds it.

Sequoia and her snorkel partner. (Photo: Jamie Robinson).

I have been away from Panama for about three months now, and the nostalgia and longing I feel for the month I spent there is still just as strong as it was when I boarded that plane home. I’m not sure whether it’s the ocean, the students, the staff, the sun, or the food (shout out to Hugo’s cooking), but I miss Panama in a way that I’ve never missed a place before. I think this emotional longing stems from the fact that Panama transforms each student who lives there, no matter how short a time. The constant immersion (literally) in the marine environment ensures that you never stop learning. You are similar to the sea sponges that will frequent your photo reels after a snorkel: you never stop soaking it up.

Coral spotted during a class snorkel. (Photo: Jamie Robinson).

You spend your days learning how to snorkel, listening to Alexis teach you how to duck dive, taking notes underwater (arguably the best place to take notes), and recording fish and frog counts. You hike through rainforests, visit bat caves, and learn how to make chocolate at a chocolate farm.

But Panama educates you both inside and outside of the classroom. Beyond MPA research, you learn about the people and ways of life in Bocas del Toro. From the taxi rides to town, to the local surf competitions, to the delicious seafood restaurants, you experience a cultural education that rivals the scholastic instruction. Some of my fondest memories are of meeting new friends while SCUBA diving and surfing, dancing at Selina’s, celebrating my birthday on the pirate ship, and eating cookies at Amaranto’s cafe. As cliché as it sounds, Panama teaches you to slow down and lead a more leisurely life. You leave behind the rigidity of the timetables and productivity expectations that the U.S. emphasizes and instead focus more on living in the moment, enjoying the ecosystems around you, and learning about the marine park. It’s an extremely soul-satisfying way to live, and even more so considering you’re doing it for school! So many times during my time there, I would stop and look around me, wondering in euphoric shock, “How am I getting school credit for this? I am having SO much fun!” I was literally getting college credit to snorkel in the Caribbean! School will never get any cooler than that. Even the assignments and lectures were extremely stimulating and fascinating.

A starfish spotted on mangrove roots. (Photo: Emma Cotter).

And the best part is, the skills and knowledge that you learn in Panama are transferable to many different situations and lifestyles. I only realized how much I learned in Panama after I left. Recently, I was snorkeling in Sicily and was able to identify multiple different fish and organisms around me. Additionally, I was able to strike up a conversation with the boat captain about marine parks in Italy. I drew on the pool of knowledge that I cultivated in Panama and was able to discuss how the lack of enforcement in the Sicilian MPA was resulting in overfishing and a corresponding lack of biodiversity and biomass. It was an extremely empowering experience to be able to have an educated and informed conversation with the captain, and it was all possible because of my time in Bocas del Toro and the teachings of Cinda, Leon, and Holly. The things you learn in Panama, both about yourself and the underwater world, will stay with you forever and will aid you in further travels and marine explorations.

A nurse shark spotted during class. (Photo: Jamie Robinson).

Not only does the knowledge that you learn stay with you, but so do the friendships. The people that I met in Panama are easily some of the most adventurous, inspiring, and kind people I have ever met. Every day spent with them was a day of laughter, storytelling, and bonding. Even though we all came from different states and schools, by the end of a month we were the best of friends. For example, I keep in daily contact with some of the friends I made and am planning a trip with two of my peers. I eagerly look forward to the day when I can see them again. All of the students led such diverse and exciting lives that continuously inspired me to emulate them. From studying abroad in New Zealand, to snorkeling with whale sharks, to living in Rome, to getting SCUBA certified in Thailand, my peers always galvanized me to add things to my bucket list. I couldn’t help but want to travel to new countries as I sat around the dinner table, listening to their wild and riveting stories over plates of coconut rice and johnny bread. The friends that I made amongst the students and the staff were easily the best part of my trip. They made me feel welcomed, supported, and valued in a way that rivals any group that I have ever met before.

My month in Panama will forever remain in my memory as the month of sandy toes, tangled hair, and salty skin. I spent every second adventuring, laughing, and learning, and if that’s not the definition of paradise, I don’t know what is.



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.

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