Public Health Students Get Family Style Welcome in Panama

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Pilot Pablo Palencia & Attorney Sofia Palencia, host family in Panama to students traveling from the USF College of Public Health.

Albrook, Republic of Panama. June 2008 – Helicopter Pilot Pablo Palencia and his wife Sofia walk through their house in Panama pointing up, down, here and there. All around them are reminders of the USF public health students they’ve hosted in the last year-and-a-half. There is the painting from Tada, a collection of teas from Rachel, the photo album from Harley and Jenny – not to mention the countless number of photos of their “USF kids”.

“Pablo was away on business for a couple of weeks one of the times…the students staying with us were all girls…and it was like having a house full of daughters,” says Sofia with delight. The couple has only boys, two sons ages 6 and 24. “The girls and I spent a lot of time together, on social outings, shopping and just plain talking. They became part of our family. We feel that way about all the kids.”

Their USF kids are students from the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health who stay in their home as part of their International Field Experience in Panama. The couple, who live in a suburb of Panama City, can host up to 5 USF students at the same time. Depending on their assignments, these graduate students in public health and global health stay with the Palencia family anywhere from one to three months.

Plenty of humor & Spanglish…
“From the beginning, it’s been a wonderful experience for us,” says husband Pablo, the entire family sitting down for our interview, most of it happening in Spanish. “We do speak to the students in English, but some of them want to learn or practice their Spanish with us.” The result is plenty of Spanglish exchanges – a combination of English and Spanish words laced together in the same sentence. “It can be very funny,” says Pablo. “My English is very…uh, basic…I’ll leave out an ‘S’, forget a ‘you’. I can’t always come up with the entire sentence in English, so I’ll speak in phrases. It’s the same with students and their Spanish.”
Q: Just like in the movies – ‘Me Tarzan. You Jane’?
“Right!” says Pablo, now laughing hard. “Pero la gente entiende! Eventually, they understand me!” he says sheepishly.

Remembering one funny exchange with a student, Pablo and Sofia tell the dinner time story. The student wanted to go out for dinner but what rolled off her tongue in Spanish was “Tu comer. Me, yo ir.” which translated to English is “You eat. Me, I go.” After some back and forth and plenty of laughing, Pablo asked, “Do you want us to take you out to dinner?”

Inspiring students…
“They have hosted the stay of a number of public health students and every single one of them has absolutely loved staying with them,” says Dr. Arlene Calvo writing from Ciudad del Saber, the City of Knowledge. Calvo earned her master’s degree and PhD in public health form the USF College of Public Health and is now a public health researcher in her native Panama.

Pablo and Sofia Palencia with sons Jonathan, 24, and Pablito,6.

The Palencia home is located in Albrook, one of five areas alongside the Panama Canal that were occupied and controlled by U.S. Military, as well as the canal. After the U.S. handover of the canal on December 31, 1999, those five areas reverted back to the republic and were opened to civilians. The Palencia’s modern day home in this historic area of Panama is part of the students’ total immersion of Panama, past and present – their time together providing experiences and memories that no academic dorm, hostal or hotel ever could.

“I think it’s absolutely indispensable. I think it’s probably the most important part of their whole experience, honestly!” says Dr. Ann DeBaldo, Associate Dean of International Programs in the USF College of Public Health and Associate Vice President of International Programs, USF Health. “What we’re trying to do with the students is not just teach them the content of their discipline, be it lab work in tropical disease research or issues in maternal & child health that they’re studying in Panama. What we really want them to do is absorb the whole cultural and environmental milieu and hopefully be turned on to working in public health internationally.”

The Palencias began serving as a host family in the spring of 2007. To date, they’ve received a total of 8 USF public health students and await the arrival of the ninth in July. Their decision to ‘host’ was certainly not born out of a sense of boredom or financial need. Pablo is a helicopter pilot and flight instructor. Sofia is an attorney specializing in business law – living professional lives at ‘full throttle’ and raising children of their own, 24 year old Jonathan and 6 year old Pablito.

Don Felipe & the family’s fan mail…
‘Don Felipe’ is the grandfather in the house. Now a retired accountant, ‘Don Felipe’ juggles his unofficial job keeping track of students’ transportation needs, their comings & goings with Facebook, MySpace and email lingo. The constant flow of messages and photos from past exchange students keeps him busy…all of them, really, and happily so. “Uno se encarina con ellos. One becomes emotionally attached to the students,” says Don Felipe in Spanish. “We love them and they love us. Then when they leave, es una lloradera, it’s a crying fest.”

“I get emails from them (USF public health students) all the time and we love it,” says Sofia, eyes shining bright, visibly proud of the strong friendships they maintain with the exchange students long after they’ve left Panama.
Q: How long do you think you’ll keep hosting USF public health students?
“As long as the college wants us to! No problem at all!” says Sofia.

“Each of them is like a part of our family during the time that they are here. It doesn’t matter how old they are, or how long they stay with us. They call us their Panamanian familia. That’s how they see us and that’s what we like because we feel the same way about them,” says Pablo.

Life lessons & lasting friendships…
“There are lessons here that they can draw from for the rest of their lives,” says Pablo. “We’re not directing them…instructing them…but they see the unity of our family, how we’re together as much as possible. In this world that we live in with so much destruction and negativity, where men leave their families to go out to have a good time and drink, I drink my agua ardiente at home. I have a good time by sharing my time and energy with my family! I think we transmit that sense of family unity to all who stay with us and that’s something they can benefit from in their own lives.”

They are life lessons not lost on these young men and women, who return home with a treasure trove of stories. “The students continually comment that the hospitality they receive from this family surpasses anything they could imagine,” says Karen Liller, PhD, Associate Dean of Academic & Student Affairs, USF College of Public Health. “…we want the student to fully experience public health in Panama and what better way than to spend time with this family. In this way, the practice of public health becomes a reality. “

“When they meet people like the Palencia family and they welcome them with open arms, it’s way past learning the topic, way past learning Spanish or even learning the culture. It ignites a student’s desire to really be out in the world as a global citizen, as a global public health professional. That’s why we require this experience for our international, global practice students because we want them to be totally immersed to the point where they really get it!” says DeBaldo. “…those are the students who then go out and land great careers and are quite capable of making big changes in the world. I just break out in goose bumps when I think about it!”

Story by Lissette Campos, USF Health Communications
Part II of ongoing series from Panama

Other Links:

Reporter’s Notebook: The Aha! Moment at the Panama Canal

Part I of series: USF Health International Foundation Opens in Panama

Office of International Programs, USF College of Public Health

Photo Gallery Below

The Palencia home is located in a suburb of Panama City that used to be home to tens of thousands of U.S. military families connected with the operation of the Panama Canal. The modern construction of their townhome contrasts with the barracks and military housing doting the landscape there – structures that date back to American control of the canal.

The Palencia family opens its doors to exchange students throughout the year. When USF public health students are not in Panama, the family plays hosts to students and researchers from Spain’s language school (Ilisa) as well as a research division of the Organization of American States in Panama. Almost everyone spends the bulk of their time in the Palencia’s open-air family room/dining area.

The family’s hammock in the outdoor family room/dining area is a favorite with students. “This is so different from the places some of them were raised in…not everyone was raised in Florida,” says Pablo. “We had one student from Montana!”
Q: Did you say Montana?
“From Montana and he was a cowboy!” says Pablo with a chuckle.

Painting was a gift to the Palencia family from Fall 2007 student Tadahiro Sasaki, PhD student in Global Health.

Teak case w/collection of teas was a gift from Dec. 2007 student Rachel Pyngolil, honors undergraduate student from USF. The only undergraduate student allowed, to date, to participate in the college’s international field experience program, Rachel arrived with her father in Panama, who helped her settle in with the Palencias before departing.

Coming Soon…
Part III of series:
USF Nursing Students in Delivery Room of Panama City’s Largest Public Maternity Ward…