This summer, I studied abroad for one month in the country of Panama. I studied abroad through the School for Field Studies (SFS), and I took one class called Tropical Island Systems: The Human Impact. Panama was actually not my original destination of choice, as I had studied abroad for a semester in 2019 in Costa Rica and Mexico. I was interested in going abroad again before I graduated somewhere outside of Central America. I looked at several other programs and was accepted to the Bhutan summer program through SFS, which unfortunately got canceled due to Covid-19. I thought Panama would be similar to my experience in Costa Rica in the cloud forest, however, I could not have been more wrong. Returning to Central America was truly an amazing experience, one that I will never forget, and I would not have done anything like it if it had not been for the pandemic.
I do not know how I got so lucky, because my program was the definition of paradise. Time went by blissfully slow, the days filled with adventure, smiles, good times, good food, and new experiences. While many SFS programs have different focuses, my program was nicknamed the “surf and turf” program, as we got to do many land and water activities. The SFS Panama center was located on an island in the Bocas del Toro archipelago on the Caribbean coast of Panama. The water was warm, clear, and full of ocean life. Our center was right on the beach, and our classroom was on a dock overlooking the ocean. We would discuss our readings there and were picked up multiple times a week to go on excursions. Our center was within walking distance of town, many other beaches, and nearby restaurants. Bocas is in the tropics, so we got to see lots of cool tropical flora and fauna every day, including frogs, sloths, and leaf cutter ants. Oh, and did I mention we had a personal chef?
I think one of the best aspects of my study abroad experience was my awesome program. My program was different from a lot of study abroad options because I was not at a university. While I was taking a college-level course taught by professors, I was located at a small center with other students from the U.S.
This program was HANDS-ON, which I think was one of its best aspects. Our class met six days a week, which, surprisingly, was not bad, as Saturdays were often half days. In class, we learned about rainforest and marine ecology and the human impact of tourism on local island communities. We were out in the field during most class time, which normally consisted of snorkeling, but it would sometimes consist of trekking through the rainforest. We had many speakers from the community come and talk to us about various conservation topics such as marine research, coral restoration, and sea turtle conservation. I believe this program would be great for anyone considering fieldwork after graduation.
We had seventeen students in my program, and we were the only people at the center except for the staff. We got to know each other very well over the summer and spent A LOT of time together. I think that this group size let us all make lasting relationships even though our program was only a month long. By the end, we had all greatly improved our teamwork skills, as we had multiple group projects together as well.
Lastly, the teachers and staff were truly amazing. You could tell that they loved their jobs, and it showed through their involvement with us. We got to eat meals with our professors, and I really enjoyed visiting with them during mealtimes and hearing about their lives. It was really cool to share their excitement about the material they were teaching to us, as we were able to experience it together. I felt like by the end, we were all able to have better, personal relationships than what we could get in an average college classroom setting.
I really enjoyed the food in Panama. The food was very healthy, fresh, and delicious. I was originally worried about what foods would be available, as I have dietary restrictions. Our chef on campus, Hugo, cooked us amazing dishes. There were two of us who were vegetarian and two of us who were gluten-free. He often made meals that all of us in the program could eat, and if not, he would make each of us with dietary restrictions separate meals. For breakfast, we often had eggs, fresh fruit, pancakes, yogurt, and coffee. For lunch and dinner, we often had different variations of chicken, rice, cooked vegetables, salad, and juice. The restaurants also served very delicious, healthy food. My favorite meal was during our last night in Bocas. We traveled to the nearby Carenero island to a restaurant called Receta Michilá, where I had one of the best meals of my entire life. Dinner was fish and breadfruit, and dessert was chocolate mousse topped with chili powdered cacao nibs. The menu was small and limited to what foods were local and caught that day. After eating, we took a tour of the extensive garden located behind the restaurant in the rainforest. It was one of my favorite nights during the trip.
Getting to experience the local way of life is one of the most immersive parts of study abroad. Getting to not only visit but live in and learn about your surroundings you will be in for one or more months is a unique experience and makes your time abroad even more meaningful. While unfortunately, our exposure to the Panamanian culture was somewhat limited due to Covid-19, I think the relationships we were able to make with the people we met in the program and in the community were stronger because of it. Without the tourists in a tourist town, we were able to meet and connect with many more locals than we would have otherwise, which I thought was really neat. In addition, our class really helped us learn about the history of the people of Panama and their relationships to conservation in the archipelago.
Studying abroad as an environmental science major
I found that there are plenty of opportunities for study abroad in many different countries as an environmental science major. I feel like often, especially in Tennessee, it can be very discouraging to be an environmental science major. We are often having to fight for better environmental practices, even at our own universities. We are often surrounded by people who still deny the existence of climate change, and I have sadly had many professors who still tiptoe around climate change topics to not offend or turn away people in my classes. I have found it extremely eye-opening that the narrative surrounding climate change and environmental science can be very different in different locations. After returning from my first study abroad in Costa Rica, I was very excited and uplifted by my positive experience in a very eco-friendly country, and I was ready to fight for change back at home. After coming back from Panama, my eyes had been opened in a different way. I saw coral reefs that had been overfished, damaged, and bleached. My class had discussions about rising sea levels and shrinking fish populations in Bocas and how local livelihoods have and will be affected in the future. Even with the environmental degradation that has happened and continues to happen in Bocas today, my class was able to see all of the teachers, researchers, nonprofit organizations, business owners, and even everyday citizens working for sustainable practices in a sustainable model, building from the ground up. I now realize that there is an army of very talented people dedicated to fighting climate change and negative human impact around the globe, and they are not going to give up, no matter the circumstances.
Awesome things I got to do that were part of the program:
- Saw REALLY COOL sea life including lots of fish, nurse sharks, squids, rays, endangered corals, dolphins, starfish, and sponges
- Saw the Panama Canal
- Saw at least 10 sloths
- Got to witness chocolate making at an indigenous chocolate farm
- Identified and surveyed poison dart frogs in the rainforest
- Got to explore mangrove habitats above and underwater
Extra fun things I was able to do outside of the program
- Took a water taxi (multiple times!)
- Went dancing on a pirate ship
- Visited and snorkeled at a coral restoration project and site
- Took a discover scuba dive in an artificial sunken ship!
- Took a surf lesson & watched a surf competition
- Met a restaurant owner with an actual peg leg
- Found a secret lagoon
- Experienced an earthquake (fun?)
- Got to take over UT Chattanooga’s Instagram and talk about all the cool things I was doing and learning about in Panama!
- Walks along the beach to collect cool rocks and shells
- And a lot more!
Advice for future students wanting to study abroad
- If you are thinking about it, do it. It might just change your life.
- Advocate for yourself. Maybe get a second or third opinion from someone in the study abroad office before you rule out study abroad as an option for you.
- You can study abroad more than once!
- There are plenty of scholarships out there. I have gotten both of my study abroads almost completely covered by scholarships, so do not let money turn you away from applying!
- Do not just limit yourself to one provider that you think will be the best while looking for study abroad options. It is tempting to just go with the one with the best/ easiest website design and advertising when looking at programs. I had equally great experiences through both providers I went through!
Overall thoughts and takeaways
Overall, I am very grateful I had the opportunity to travel to Panama when I did. Some of my favorite memories were yes, the big events, but even more so, the little moments and unexpected things that happened. Even though traveling during the pandemic was difficult, overcoming the obstacles and hard times made the experiences even more valuable. This was my last class in undergrad, and even though it did not count for credit I needed to graduate, I gained SO much from it, including different experiences than I could have gotten in a traditional classroom setting. I feel like this last experience opened my eyes to new subjects, careers I did not even know existed, and new ways of life. I am lucky to now have amazing connections, advice, experience, and memories for life.
Laurel Pelren (Environmental Science) spent summer 2021 studying abroad in Bocas del Toro, Panama through School for Field Studies. Laurel had the following to say about studying abroad, “No matter what provider you go through, program you do, or country you travel to, there are always experiences, memories, and lessons learned from study abroad. Often you come away with different takeaways then what you might expect going in, which is the joy of studying abroad!” Laurel spent a previous semester studying abroad in Costa Rica and Mexico; you can read about that adventure here.
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