Posted: February 11, 2019
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First Impressions of Panama


As the Spring 2019 SFS students begin to settle into their new homes around the world, we asked them to share their impressions of the experience so far. Allyson Ulsh had this to say about SFS Panama:

Why did you choose to study abroad with SFS?
I chose SFS initially because the fieldwork component of the program’s courses fulfilled various fieldwork requirements for my major. I am interested in pursuing marine ecology in graduate school and the marine field work drew me to this program as I knew that I would not be able to gain this experience at a land-locked university. Also, I have had formal education in Spanish previously and I wanted an opportunity to use these language skills and learn from native speakers. However, as I began to research more about study abroad programs, I learned more about how students traveling and living as tourists in another country can have detrimental effects on various communities. It became critically important to me that the program I chose worked alongside the community and understood the culture of the region. In learning more about SFS programs, I was inspired that this program’s faculty has a Community Coordinator and Cultural Liaison that work to identify members of the Bocas del Toro community “who not only wanted a relationship with our school, but who also welcomed foreign undergraduate students to support their own wants and desires.”

Another aspect of this program that I loved was the directed research component of the semester, where students collaborate with each other, professors, and community stakeholders to identify problems that then translate into research questions. This research is then shared with various Bocas del Toro agencies to create an environment to discuss the research findings and start conversations about how the research may lead to environmental action. This cultural awareness, community engagement, and environmental collaboration all lead me to choose this program over other fieldwork-based study abroad programs.

What are your first impressions of the country?
I am blown away by the beauty of Panama and its people. Prior to arriving in Panama, I had no idea that the United States controlled the Canal Zone for nearly one hundred years nor did I know that the construction of the Canal Zone brought diverse groups of people into Panama. Very similarly to the United States, Panama is a diverse melting pot of people who are proud to call themselves Panamanians. Panama City is very different than Bocas Del Toro, as the city was highly modernized and reminded me of Miami, Florida. The beaches, mangroves, and rainforests of Bocas del Toro encompass the beauty of the natural world and I am excited to explore these environments through our field-work.


All photos courtesy of Anna Chahuneau

What are your first impressions of the field station?
The center is absolutely incredible – I don’t think I can put into words the environment that the Center creates! We first arrived at the center very late at night after an exhilarating day spent in Panama City so I couldn’t tell what the Center looked like at first. Truthfully, I was a little nervous upon leaving for the program because of the pictures online – I wasn’t sure what the Center was going to look like! The online photos do not do justice to the Center, there is an inherently welcoming, open charm that makes this place feel like a home away from home. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that our classroom would be off the beach and we could go paddle-boarding, kayaking, or swimming in the ocean in our free time. I am so grateful for the staff that works here to cook our meals as well – the food is delicious, and I feel that I have already learned so much about Panamanian culture from the dishes we are served. I feel very blessed to be able to learn in this environment.


What do you think the biggest challenge will be for you this semester, both academically and culturally?
I think the biggest academic challenge this semester will be balancing my schoolwork while simultaneously wanting to explore the region and learn outside of the classroom. I am someone who worries about grades and I know that this will only hinder my learning while I am here because there is so much to learn about the environment from community members who have experienced eco-issues first-hand. Also, due to the academic rigorousness of the program, it will be difficult to manage my time with the various assignments and fieldwork components, but I know that I have a group of 19 students and professors who will be there for support!

Culturally, I think the biggest challenge for me will be overcoming the language barrier while interacting with community members. I am excited to start formal language classes at Habla Ya so that I can expand my language skills to interact with more people. Also, dancing is a very important part of Panamanian culture and this is very different than the environment I grew up in – even though we took a Salsa class led by a community member, I definitely need much more practice before I will feel comfortable dancing in public!

What are you looking forward to the most about the semester?
I am most looking forward to the community engagement aspect of this semester’s Culture and Language class. The community engagement projects partner with various Bocatorenos, indigenous communities, and local agencies to assist with various needs. I chose to participate in providing swimming lessons for young Ngäbe girls ages 6-14 from Boca del Drago. These girls are traditionally not taught how to swim, and this is especially dangerous as these communities are nearly surrounded by water and boats are a common form of transportation. I love working with children and I hope to work in environmental careers that engage youth with marine ecosystems in the future. I am so excited to work with these girls and help them to learn valuable life skills that could potentially save their lives in an emergency.

Give three words that best describe how you are feeling right now.
Inspired, Challenged, Adventurous


→ Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies in Panama

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