In June, thirteen UNT students studied abroad in Panama as part of an International Disaster and Crisis Communication course. Nine of the students were Communication Studies majors while four were from the Emergency Management Department. The course was led by Dr. Brian Richardson (Communication Studies) and Dr. Laura Siebeneck (Emergency Management). The group spent eleven days learning about Panama's natural disaster history and vulnerabilities, its culture, and its people. The students also had time to explore the scenic country.
The class included Allison San Miguel (Junior), Cameron Wanic (Senior), Chelsea White (Graduate), Mari Aguilar (Graduate), Mary Collins (Graduate), Melisa Brown (Graduate), Morgan Cheramie (Graduate), Sidney Borunda (Junior), and Victoria Hammel (Senior). Continue reading to hear all about their stories and see photos of the city, beach, forest and other adventures!
The trip was filled with a busy itinerary since there was so much to see and learn. The exciting activities on the itinerary included:
- Visiting the Las Ruins (old ruins) of Panama's first European settlement
- Spending a full day on the San Blas Islands which are currently affected by climate change
- Touring La Fortaleza de Santa Barbara (Portobello), the historical fort where the Spanish settlements battled pirates
- A visit to the US Embassy to learn how they supported U.S. Citizens during crises
- Touring a fire station and emergency control center in Panama City
- Meeting with local Red Cross officials for a discussion of Emergency and Operation Communication (flooding, seismic activity, canal disasters, etc.)
- Visiting a research hospital that aids in the fight against mosquito borne illnesses
- Hiking with a guide through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
Here are some of the student's favorite highlights from the trip and what they learned from the experience.
Melisa Brown's favorite highlights were visiting the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and hiking through the jungle. She described the jungle as "amazing and almost otherworldly" and "seeing and hearing the monkeys, understanding the research that is taking place on the island regarding food seeking and intelligence, along with other important research was fascinating." Melisa described studying abroad as life changing and said, "I recommend it to anyone: returning students, continuing students, masters and undergraduates. In today's society, having an accurate and multilateral worldview is almost impossible without impressions and experiences from cultures other than one's own. Everyone should get out there and see what the world has to offer".
Cameron Wanic's favorite highlight was the boat ride to see the indigenous San Blas Islands. He enjoyed visiting the San Blas Island because, "it really helped me understand the culture and much more so than I anticipated." An interesting fact is that studying abroad helped Cameron practice his Spanish more in the 11 days spent in Panama than two years of classes in the USA. He would recommend studying abroad because "If I could go back in time and relive those 11 days I would do so in a heartbeat".
Chelsea White's favorite highlight was also spending the day visiting the San Blas Islands because she got to relax and get to know everyone. She described the experience, "throughout most of the day it was really warm and sunny, however, it started pouring down rain towards the end of the day so the entire island of people and tourists had to cram underneath the small dining area to stay dry and out of the lightning." She found the rain storm to be a positive moment that allowed everyone the opportunity to bond. The one thing Chelsea learned while studying abroad that stood out to her the most was the culture of Panama, she said "I have learned so much about the culture of Panama, but I think one thing I learned that will forever be engraved in my brain was the Panama Canal. It was amazing learning about the history, surrounding countries. It was incredible seeing it in-person and that close!" Chelsea would definitely recommend studying abroad to a friend because it made her studies come to life. She described it as "it's one thing to read about something in a book, but it's even more incredible being able to become immersed in the culture; it teaches you things that books just can't convey!".
Morgan Cheramie's favorite highlight of the trip was her time spent in Casco Viejo which was a tourist spot filled with authentic Panamanian restaurants and gift shops. She and a couple of other students discovered a local watering hole called Mahalo. Spending time in Casco Viejo was her favorite experience because, "I was surrounded by people who provided good company in an atmosphere that captured the Panamanian culture." She learned a lot about the Panama/Central American culture and the Panamanian way of life such as their beautiful wildlife. Morgan would recommend studying abroad because "I believe that when someone travels abroad they are learning not only about a different culture, but also about themselves. Traveling will also help anyone appreciate where they are from because all countries operate differently. Traveling abroad is really a unique experience and I highly recommend everyone take advantage of any and every traveling opportunity".
Mary Collins enjoyed the time spent on the San Blas Island because it was a unique opportunity to interact with the Guna Tribe. She said "We visited a series of islands and got to swim at a sandbar in the middle of the Caribbean." The most interesting fact Mary learned on the trip was, "I learned that disasters and risks are not equivalent words across cultures. When Texans hear "risks" or "hazards," I think we quickly associate those words with natural disasters, like tornados or flooding. Panamanians seem to view natural disasters as part of life." Mary explained that the class thought they knew the answers to their questions about risks and hazards, but the answers consistently surprised them. Studying abroad wasn't new to Mary since she had the experience for an entire year as an undergraduate student. She confidently gives the following advice about studying abroad, "Study abroad is the single most impactful thing you can do to take ownership of your higher education experience. Even if you think you won't get anything out of it, you always will. It is always worth the cost." She also recommends being proactive about talking with an advisor and making sure that studying abroad will keep you on track with good academic progress.
If you are interested in studying abroad or would like more information, please visit https://studyabroad.unt.edu