Panamanian students from Brenau’s first cohort in partnership with IFARHU are welcomed to campus by faculty and staff members on Friday, April 9, 2021. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Brenau welcomes first students from Panama partnership

Apr 9, 2021
Michael Lowe
Brenau faculty and staff welcome members of the first IFARHU cohort from Panama
Brenau faculty and staff welcome members of the first IFARHU cohort from Panama to campus on Friday, April 9, 2021. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Brenau University welcomed 16 new students from Panama on Thursday, April 8, as part of its new partnership with the Institute for the Development of Human Resources (IFARHU), Panama’s financial aid agency.

The students’ arrival to the university’s historic Gainesville, Georgia, campus follows the signing of an agreement between Brenau and IFARHU in November. Students were chosen through a highly selective process emphasizing academic merit and financial need for the five-year program, which includes a year of college readiness followed by four years of undergraduate study.

Ibeth Pinto, an intended accounting major, said she was happy and grateful for the scholarship.

“I studied hard for many years,” Pinto said. “To know that I was chosen to study in the United States was a dream come true, and I am happy that it will be at Brenau University, because I have already received a lot of support from them. I know that a bilingual education will open many doors for me to help my family and give back to my country.”

Like Pinto, Alberto Ortega, an intended finance major, said all of his years of studying and work paid off and led him to this opportunity.

“When IFARHU’s Director Bernardo Meneses told me that I had been chosen for this scholarship, I was so excited that I couldn’t breathe,” Ortega said. “Nothing that is worthwhile is easy, and I know that this will be the biggest challenge I have ever faced. With determination and faith, I will persevere.”

Brenau President Anne Skleder said the IFARHU initiative is a tremendous opportunity as the university continues to strengthen its international partnerships while also providing life-changing educational experiences for first-generation students.

“This is a group of students who are immensely bright and committed to learning,” Skleder said. “They were at the top of their classes at each of their schools, and they have incredible ambition to be the first in their families to pursue college degrees of any kind.”

Skleder, who previously worked with IFARHU while serving as provost at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, said seeing these students’ dreams come true is incredibly moving.

Brenau President Anne Skleder meets with Director General of IFARHU Bernardo Meneses
Brenau President Anne Skleder meets with Director General of IFARHU Bernardo Meneses on campus on Friday, April 9, 2021. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

“We know education changes lives and the trajectories of families,” Skleder said. “Through this partnership, we know all of us will grow, including our domestic students by increasing their cultural awareness as they prepare to compete in a global society. We are humbled and honored to be a part of this effort.”

Rosi Ponce, Brenau’s executive director of international strategy and partnerships, said that the university checks many boxes the Panamanian initiative seeks in forming partnerships.

“We are committed to a long-lasting relationship with the country of Panama and working with IFARHU,” Ponce said. “Brenau has the resources and expertise to provide Panamanian students with the skills required to help them be successful in their academic pursuits.”

Panama is five years into a 20-year reform of their educational system, which focuses on creating access to opportunities for bridging the equity gap and bilingualism as keys to becoming more competitive.

“Part of Brenau’s commitment is to help these students succeed and break the cycle of poverty for them, their families and their communities,” Ponce said.

During their initial 14-day quarantine period, the Panamanian students will take a newly created pre-First Year Experience course led by Ponce, Director of International Initiatives Jordan Anderson and International Partnership Coordinator Mandy Bartell. After the students get settled with help from Brenau’s student services, internet technology and other support staff, they will then begin English classes with ON Language, Brenau’s partner language school. Those classes will go through December, with undergraduate program study beginning in January 2022.

While the Panamanian students may be new to campus, they are not new to Brenau. Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs Emily Zank said they have already been working with university staff, including members of Brenau’s career services team who helped students decide on majors prior to their arrival. She said students will also be paired with academic advisors and faculty members within their chosen disciplines to “communicate early and often.”

“We’re going to make sure they have the support they need to be successful,” Zank said. “This includes a structured assessment communication plan and surrounding them with all of the resources available during their time at Brenau.”

Brenau Co-Chief Diversity Leader Margie Gill said partnering with Panama paves the way for Brenau to strengthen its ability to provide world-class education to a growing international student population while also fostering diversity on campus and in the community.

“Brenau University is committed to having a diverse representation of students by offering equitable learning experiences in inclusive learning and living environments,” Gill said.

Those experiences include exposing the Brenau community at large to the history, art, music, food and other aspects of its global neighbors. Moving forward, Brenau will host events and activities dedicated to Panamanian culture.

“This is a chance for all of us to learn from these students and their families,” Gill said.

Students from the first cohort of the partnership between Brenau and IFARHU arrive
Students from the first cohort of the partnership between Brenau and IFARHU arrive. The students will spend five years at Brenau, one of English, cultural emersion and mathematics and four in a major. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Skleder said the Panamanian program is a door-opener to other partnership opportunities in Latin American and Caribbean countries. In the past year, Brenau also renewed its agreement with the Mexican Consulate in Atlanta, which provides scholarships for students of Mexican heritage as part of the Institute of Mexicans Abroad (IME Becas) scholarship program.

Skleder says this is an ideal region for a number of reasons including growing economies, a demonstrated financial investment by many of these governments in bilingual and higher education, and the close geographic proximity. Many countries in this region place a high value on education, and they view the American higher education system as the best in the world.

Provost and Vice President of Academic Affairs Jim Eck says that having international students on Brenau’s campus enriches the college experience for all students and faculty.

“By hosting international students on our campuses, faculty, staff and students are introduced to perspectives that may differ from the typical American experience,” Eck says. “In academic settings, faculty continually improve instructional methods based on the tools that are most effective for student learning. By including students from other cultural backgrounds, such as educational systems, this challenges our faculty to enhance teaching skills in ways that may not have been considered previously.”

Faculty members also benefit from international experiences and exposure, says Andrea Birch, dean of the College of Fine Arts & Humanities.

“These experiences serve as great reminders to faculty to acknowledge the complexity of global problems and the need to work collaboratively with others to develop solutions that will make the world a better place for future generations.”

To read more about Brenau’s internationalization, and diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, visit