Brenau students with children at a rural school in Panama, holding a Brenau Golden Tigers flag
Keren Kapwadi, Sarah Nolan, Annabeth Vandiver and Imani Tornes pose with the children at a rural school in Panama. (Kelley Brock-Simmons)

Brenau students visit Panama to strengthen partnership

Jun 9, 2022
Alyson Shields

Four Brenau University students engaged in a service-learning project in Panama as part of an enhancement in study abroad programs at the university following the establishment of the Miller Institute for Global Education this spring. 

The institute aims to expand the opportunities for Brenau students to travel abroad for experiential learning. Increasing global awareness is also part of the university’s strategic plan

Annabeth Vandiver, a senior elementary education major from Sautee, Georgia, said the experience working with children at a rural public school in partnership with the Panama Ministry of Education was life-changing.

Annabeth Vandiver poses with three school children in Panama
(Kelley Brock-Simmons)

“Working with the children in Loma Bonita was incredible and eye-opening,” Vandiver said. “I constantly found myself comparing the school, teaching styles, students and staff to my experiences in the American schools. While they did not have many supplies, big schools, or lots of students, they were persevering. It was amazing to see how the students were so well-behaved and eager to learn.”

There are currently two cohorts of Panamanians attending Brenau through a partnership with IFARHU, Panama’s financial aid agency, that brings students to the historic Gainesville campus each year for a five year program. The first students arrived in April 2021. A third cohort of visually impaired students in the Intensive English Program at ON Language are also studying at Brenau for one year as part of IFARHU’s inclusion program.

Rachel Lane, associate director of international student and scholar services at Brenau, said the May trip was important to building the relationship between the two nations and cultures.

“Sending Brenau students to Panama strengthens the connections made in our study abroad program, both as hosts and as students abroad,” Lane said. “These types of opportunities also align with our strategic plan and Quality Enhancement Plan to increase cultural competence in the Brenau student population.”

Vandiver and three other students — Keren Kapwadi, WC ’22, of Johns Creek, Georgia; Sarah Nolan, a junior finance major from Gainesville, Georgia; and Imani Tornes, a sophomore psychology major from Fayetteville, Georgia — experienced Panama during their weeklong trip May 17-24.

Brenau in PanamaThe students were accompanied by Kelley Brock-Simmons, an associate professor of education. They visited the Panama Canal and Gamboa Rainforest to learn more about the nation’s culture and environment, in addition to the service-learning experience at the school in Loma Bonita.

Vandiver, who wants to be an elementary school teacher, said the trip made her examine her goals more closely.

“This trip gave me teaching and planning experience, but specifically for English Language Learners in a different country,” Vandiver said. “It challenged me to be creative, try new things and reflect. Culture is a big component of education, and this experience taught me a lot about it. I set a few short-term goals for myself, which include educating Brenau University about Panama from the schools to the lifestyle to the culture.”

Vandiver’s goal fits with one requirement for all four Brenau students who participated in the experience: to promote study abroad by sharing their experience. They also will organize fundraisers for the rural Panamanian school, Lane said.

“They will launch campaigns to fundraise for the school throughout the year so the next delegation will be able to donate school materials the following year,” Lane said. “This effort will be ongoing to ensure sustainability of the program. The fundraising campaigns will be developed by the students.”