Public health undergraduates experience Panama for the first time

| Academic & Student Affairs, COPH Home Page Feed, Intl Programs, Monday Letter, Our World, Students, Undergraduate

“It was very, very successful,” said Deidre Orriola, instructor of the USF College of Public Health’s first undergraduate course held in Panama, which concluded June 1.

At the end of May, a group of 12 undergraduate students, one staff member and one faculty member traveled to Panama for an eight-day, three-credit-hour class.

Orriola taught the course, which was called Public Health Seminar: Public Health in Panama, and Annette Strzelecki, a COPH undergraduate advisor, accompanied the group. While USF has had programs in Panama since 2006, this class was the first trip available to undergraduate students.

Students and faculty flaunt their USF pride on-site in Panama

Students and faculty flaunt their USF pride on-site in Panama.

During their week in Panama, the students visited a variety of public health sites and agencies. The topics covered included environmental health, social services, waste management, indigenous health, nutrition, safety and medical care.

Strzelecki, whose career is in helping students make connections and find their paths, said she really enjoyed watching and helping the students process all the new information.

“It was just really neat to kind of see them get excited about that next step in life,” she said.

Nicole Delgado was a student on the trip, and she said that the most rewarding part was being able to meet the people and experience Panamanian culture.

“It was humbling and an honor to be taught by them about their country,” she said.

Delgado has an interest in working in Latin America in the future, and this trip helped confirm her feelings. She said she thought it was amazing that the people were so willing to share their culture.

Delgado posing with a starfish on one of the group’s excursions.

Delgado posing with a starfish on one of the group’s excursions.

Delgado’s only complaint was that she wishes the trip had been longer. While the trip itself was brief, the days were long.

The group typically would leave the hotel around 7:30 a.m. to get through at least two or three organized site visits a day. Students would return to the hotel around 6 p.m. for dinner, and then they would have a nightly debriefing session afterwards. Orriola guesses that most days were close to 16 hours long and packed with work.

Because the workload was so full, Orriola said she is considering changing the amount of work that students must complete during the trip. She said she thinks students might benefit from doing more pre- and post-trip work so that they can really experience what’s in front of them.

The itinerary wasn’t all work, however.

There was a free day scheduled, and on the Saturday of their trip, the group got to explore El Valle de Anton, an inactive volcano crater. This planned excursion allowed the students to experience some of the waterfalls, hiking trails and beautiful landscapes that Panama has to offer.

El Valle de Antón Panam

El Valle de Antón

 El Valle de Antón 2 Panama

The unplanned trips, though, were just as rewarding.

Part of the public health field is being able to make adjustments and staying flexible when plans change. Delgado said that the changing plans made for some interesting experiences.

“It bonded us together and brought about a lot of laughter,” Delgado said. She shared that even when they weren’t prepared for certain activities, the moment still ended up being a great memory.

For example, on the last day of their visit, the plans changed upon arrival, and the students found themselves out in the field.

The group was scheduled to visit the Paraiso Health Center on their last day, but the group instead got to tag along on an outbreak investigation to a local community that had just had its first confirmed case of dengue fever instead. Students got the unique experience of watching workers go door-to-door looking for standing water that could potentially breed the specific mosquito responsible for transmitting the virus that causes dengue fever.

Delgado said, “Shadowing them as they did their inspections and learning what they look for was awesome! It was incredible to see public health at work.”

Orriola was pleased with the changes, too.

“That was something really different, something hands-on that they got to do,” she said.


Fungi specimen samples

Fungi specimen samples


Ministry of Health display.

Ministry of Health display

Orriola also said that it was interesting from an instructor’s perspective to see the students bond so quickly and, more impressive to see them network so well with their peers.

The students were able to form close relationships on this short trip, even though many of them hadn’t met before.

Delgado said, “Being in Panama was a growth experience that we all did together, which helps to forge lasting friendships.”

Small child from indigenous village of the Embera

Small child from indigenous village of the Embera

This trip to Panama left both students and faculty changed emotionally, as well as physically. On one of the excursions to an indigenous village, everyone in the group received a non-permanent henna-like tattoo that was made from the dye of a berry.

“We’re all marked,” Orriola said, proudly displaying the tribal pattern already fading from her forearm. Whether it was on a forearm, a shoulder or an ankle, everyone on the trip brought back a little piece of Panamanian culture, along with a new understanding for public health practices of this Central American country.

And while the tattoos may fade, the memories of this first undergraduate trip to Panama certainly will not.

Story by Annamarie Koehler-Shepley, College of Public Health. Photos courtesy of trip participants.