Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

Q&A with Panama Study Abroad Program Leader, Aly Dagang

SIT and Smithsonian Journeys have come together to offer a four-week summer study abroad program in Panama for students age 18 and older. The program will provide firsthand experience in biodiversity, sustainability, and conservation in Central America’s southernmost nation.

Amy Kotkin, Director of Smithsonian Journeys, speaks with Aly Dagang, program leader and Associate Dean for Latin America at SIT, a division of World Learning.

Aly Dagang, Smithsonian Journeys Study Leader

Aly Dagang in the field with students

Amy Kotkin: This June, Smithsonian will partner with World Learning on a month-long program for college students who would like to study tropical ecology and sustainability issues in Panama. Why is Panama a particularly important place to study these issues?

Aly Dagang: Panama is an outstanding place to study tropical ecology due to the range of vastly biodiverse ecosystems that occur within close distances. Per square area, Panama is the most biodiverse country in the Neotropics. The proximity of terrestrial, marine, and coastal ecosystems allows students to experience multiple, unique environments throughout their studies.

AK: The Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), located in Panama, is regarded as one of the world's foremost centers for long-range studies in tropical ecology. Will students enjoy access to some of STRI's research facilities during their stay?

AD: Yes, students will have the opportunity to spend one week at Smithsonian's Bocas del Toro Research Station on Colon Island on Panama's northern Caribbean coast where they will attend the marine ecology and fisheries module of the program, taught by a Smithsonian staff scientist. In the Panama Canal Watershed, students will visit Smithsonian's Barro Colorado Island research station and become familiar with active research experiments undertaken by Smithsonian and Smithsonian-affiliated scientists.

AK: The program encompasses stays in both Panama City and David. Can you tell us why it is structured in this way? What are the advantages?

AD: The program is structured in this manner to provide students with the broadest access to tropical ecosystems as well as to natural resource use projects that students will be introduced to and where they will spend time. In David, on Panama's Pacific coast, students will attend Spanish classes at the national university while engaging in field experiences in the cloud forest of the La Amistad UNESCO World Heritage Site (PILA). In the PILA buffer zone, students will live and work with rural families engaged in sustainable cottage industries aimed toward the conservation of PILA's natural resources. In the capital, students will engage in the climate change module and meet with practitioners and scientists who are actively working on projects seeking to broaden the knowledge base with a particular focus on the effects of climate change in the tropics. Students will also visit projects that are exploring integration into the international carbon market.

AK: Homestays are a key element to all of SIT's programs. Why do you house students in homes rather than dormitories for a segment of their stay, and can you tell us anything about the homestays in Panama?

AD: Homestays are one of the hallmarks of the SIT experiential learning model. Living with a local family allows students to become immersed into the local culture, to forge relationships with people from the area in which they are living, and become much more familiar with local norms, customs, and lifestyle. On the Panama program, students live in homestays while in David, in the PILA buffer zone, and sometimes in Panama City. In David and Panama City, our hosts are working class families who tend to have long-standing roots in their neighborhoods. In the PILA buffer zone, families are rural agriculturalists who have lived for many years in the mountain region where students are based. Most host families in general have children and large, extended families.

AK: Spanish instruction is also included in the program. Do students need any particular level of proficiency in order to register?

AD: No, there are no language pre-requisites for the Spanish classes. Students of all language levels are accommodated within the program.

AK: What can you tell us about the faculty for this program?

AD: Faculty are drawn from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, the national university, local NGOs, and one international NGO. Instructors are highly regarded and are considered experts in their fields. In addition to the program's Academic Director, each module is taught by an individual expert providing students the opportunity to interact with specialists in each of the fields of study.

Students explore Panama's cloud forests

AK: The Panama program includes 6 college credits. What are the requirements for credit?

AD: To earn all six credits, students must complete satisfactorily all requirements of the two three-credit courses, Spanish and Sustaining the Earth in the 21st Century, as articulated in the course syllabi.

AK: The program was first offered in 2011. What did last year's college students particularly value about the experience?

AD: I believe student's were most captured by the homestay experiences, both rural and urban, as they allowed students to integrate into society as well as provided them with new perspectives and visions of Panama and its environmental resources. Also students seemed to find the field excursions to the mountain forests and to the Caribbean coast particularly engaging and unique due to the hands-on, experiential learning they engaged in there.

More About Aly Dagang, Ph.D.:
Dr. Dagang, a California native, completed her B.A. in international development with an emphasis in Latin American Studies at American University in Washington, D.C. She obtained her Ph.D. from the School of Forest Resources and Conservation at the University of Florida, Gainesville. Her research was carried out with local farmers and examines biophysical and socioeconomic aspects of wood and fruit tree repopulation of grazed, extensive pastures in Central Panama. Dr. Dagang was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the province of Panama Oeste. She has worked on numerous projects in Panama with foci that include gender, agroforestry, sustainable agriculture, community development, environmental education, forestry, and conservation.  Dr. Dagang was academic director of the SIT Panama program from 2002 to 2009 and now serves as associate academic dean for the SIT Latin America portfolio. She is also the agroecology professor for the SIT Study Abroad Panama semester program.

Want to learn more? Click here for more information on Smithsonian Journeys' Study Abroad Programs.