Leaving home for the unknown requires courage, and that is what makes the college experience unique for so many students. Moreso than any other time in their lives, they begin to understand their resilience and potential for success. This rings true for students studying within their native country, but for students attending university abroad, the unknown takes on a whole new meaning.
I had the chance to sit down with a student who took this giant leap of faith himself when he left his native Panama to attend college in the United States. Luis is a junior at a large southern university, studying Chemical Engineering and Chemistry. Despite a variety of challenges and moments of uncertainty, Luis has found the study abroad experience to be transformative; it has improved his understanding of himself and his potential.
Ben: What it was like to grow up in Panama?
Luis: Growing up in Panama was definitely a great experience, considering it is a really small country. I was introduced to so many different cultures while embracing my own and realized throughout the years that I would not have wanted to go through my childhood and teenage years in any other place. The town I grew up in was small, but it provided me with everything I needed to have a good life and achieve my goals. Something I will always be grateful for is the fact that I was exposed to both nature and a booming economy at the same time: from waterfalls, volcanoes, beaches, mountains, jungles to a top-notch private healthcare system, an impressive skyline in Panama City, exponentially growing tourism, and more.
Ben: What is the education system like in Panama?
Luis: The education system in Panama is divided into two sectors, public and private. I attended the same school my entire life: a small, selective, British private school endorsed by Cambridge University. I feel that I was exposed to a better education than most Panamanians as I started learning English at the young age of four. I am not saying public schooling is bad; it is pretty decent, but it is flawed. I am sure I would have been less prepared for college if I would have gone to a public school back home. I learned almost everything in English, the result of adhering to the Cambridge Syllabi, so it was a more advanced education. I am incredibly grateful I was given the opportunity to go there.
Ben: What was your motivation to come to the US for college?
Luis: First of all, I had always wanted to study abroad, and the US is a very common destination for Panamanians to do their undergraduate studies. Chemical Engineering is not a very popular major back home, and I don't think any college offers undergraduate degrees in it, so that was a major reason for me to look at schools abroad. I considered the UK, but finally got a [partial] scholarship to go to college in the US… we decided to go for it and here I am.
Ben: What have been some of your challenges in transitioning to life in the US?
Luis: Where I go to school is one of the most concentrated areas of southern culture, so I think the hardest parts were getting used to an extremely different culture and the heavy Southern accent. I’m not kidding when I say I couldn't understand people from the South when I first got here. I don't miss the weather in Panama, that's for sure, but I do miss some of the food and the people back home. However, aside from that, I have adjusted to life in the US pretty quickly.
Ben: What have been your favorite moments or successes while attending your university?
Luis: Maintaining a pretty decent GPA for my major and passing all my classes so far has been a great academic achievement. Your English skills also get better over time, even if it is not your first language because you are constantly surrounded by others speaking English. I have also grown so much as a person as I've had the chance to meet people from all over the world as well as familiarize myself more with American culture. I am extremely grateful that I have had the opportunity to meet people that I know I will keep in contact with and who have had a great impact on my life. Football season and tailgates are always fun, and having a great time with my friends and pulling all-nighters in study rooms with my classmates have all been incredible experiences I'll never forget.
Ben: From your perspective, how do you feel that students from other cultures/countries adapt to life in the US for university?
Luis: I feel that students from other countries would have a harder time than me adapting to life in the US. Panamanian culture is heavily influenced by America due to historical reasons, so growing up I was exposed to American culture to some extent. Thus the change was not drastic when I came here. Sometimes I feel like people are more curious about my culture than I am about theirs, but that's because I already had a firm understanding of what American culture was like when I came in.
From what I have experienced by talking to other international students (something that surprisingly doesn't happen often) is that they have a really hard time getting used to life here, from the lack of public transportation to American pride to football season to political correctness. The friends I have made here know me just as well as the people back home. I don't feel like I am living two different lives where I feel comfortable back home and uncomfortable here. Instead, I invite people to know more about my culture as I do the same with theirs.
Ben: How does your university perform when it comes to facilitating the transition of international students?
Luis: I think that my university does its best to make everyone feel welcome, but sometimes it just doesn't translate well. Throughout my first semester here, I was trying to figure some things out and get used to the southern way of life. While they provided me with useful information at the International Students Orientation, I feel like it was not enough. Regarding legal matters like employment and similar aspects of life, they have been helpful, but sometimes we have to dig for the help we need. This is understandable, considering the small, but exponentially growing international student population.
Ben: Is there anything you would change about the orientation process?
Luis: I would not change much about the orientation itself, because it is pretty standardized for all students, but I would like them to introduce more speakers with experience about being an international student. Mainly because, trust me, it takes a lot to leave everything behind you to pursue a dream abroad. While I feel I didn’t need them, some services that help students adapt better and more clubs on campus dedicated to international students would be hugely beneficial. Imagine feeling different and being shy, that happened to me the fall semester of my freshman year, but I am a different person now.
Ben: In your own words, how would you define the concept of “academic integrity”?
Luis: Academic integrity is pretty global, and I think it transcends cultures and languages. Just as in America, we are taught to maintain a moral code and be respectful of everything and everyone. Transparency, honesty, and work ethic are important in every workspace and taught from an early age in Panama.
A perfect example of how academic integrity was taken seriously at my high school is when a professor was being corrupt and accepting money in exchange for better grades. This is something that happened for a while, but when people finally realized what was happening, it became a huge issue, and the professor was immediately fired with legal actions pending.
Ben: Do you have any advice for students that are coming into the US for school from other countries?
Luis: Be yourself, don't change for anyone, and try your best to focus on school. Make sure you strike a balance. Some people don’t realize before it’s too late that it is also important to be social and have a good time, which is how I have met with the success I created for myself in the United States. Try new things because college is one of the last places where you have the freedom to find out who you are and what you value.