Panamanian students, from left, Ana Gabriela Perez, Ibeth Pinto and Hilary Howell participate in a ceramics class over the summer at Brenau. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Students from Brenau’s partnership with Panama spend the summer learning and exploring

Aug 12, 2021
Kathryne Davis
Ann Almengor works with Huy Chu
Ann Almengor works with Huy Chu, assistant professor of art and design, on a project. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Since arriving at Brenau University in April, the first cohort of students in the university’s partnership with Panama’s Institute for the Development of Human Resources have spent their time studying English and learning more about their new home for the next five years.

During their first few months in the United States, the Panamanian students took trips on Saturdays to places such as the World of Coca-Cola, Candytopia and Zoo Atlanta. They also went tubing in Helen, hiked in North Georgia, visited downtown Gainesville and joined Brenau faculty and staff for a summer picnic on campus.

“Our intention with the outings and activities is to familiarize the students with Gainesville, Hall County, Georgia and the U.S. in general,” said Director of International Initiatives Jordan Anderson. “In the fall, we’ll start doing activities that are more in line with what they are learning in class, but for the first few months, I wanted to give them a chance to get settled and improve their language skills.”

Anderson said the students have classes five days a week, which is “very intense and has helped the students significantly improve their English language abilities.”

“It’s amazing how much work, energy and time they’ve put into learning a new language,” she said.

While the students have enjoyed all of the new activities, some were extra special because the students have never been able to experience them in Panama.

“I enjoyed going to the Atlanta zoo,” Gabriela Rojas said. “We got to see animals we haven’t seen before, like lions and pandas. We have zoos in Panama, but this zoo was massive.”

Since the students see each other every day, they have quickly formed bonds learning a new language and exploring Georgia together.

“There were many differences between provinces in Panama that we didn’t know about until we got together,” Ann Almengor said. “We’re from the same country so now we can bring those differences together.”

While on campus, students worked with Huy Chu, assistant professor of art and design, on ceramics and graphic design projects. Chu taught the students how to wedge, coil build, use detailing tools and glaze their ceramics projects. For the graphic design project, students brought in photos to make collages.

“I had a great time working with the students from Panama,” Chu said. “It was fun getting to know their interests. Several students enjoy watching anime and listening to Ariana Grande and The Weeknd.”

The students have also spent time with other members of the Brenau community, including President Anne Skleder and Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Jim Eck. The students have tried karaoke, visited Lake Lanier, attended a pool party hosted by Skleder and had dinner at the home of Brenau trustee and alumna Jill Mansfield, BU ’15 — who regularly hosts international students after befriending many during her time as a student at Brenau.

“President Skleder is amazing and a nice person,” Almengor said. “She tries to speak Spanish with us, and it’s comforting that she’s trying.”

Students in Brenau's partnership with Panama
Students in Brenau’s partnership with Panama. (AJ Reynolds/Brenau University)

Skleder said the Panamanian students continue to impress her.

“Our students from Panama are a joy and an inspiration,” Skleder said. “They have embraced learning a new culture and language during their short time in the United States. We are excited to have them here for the next five years and seeing them graduate. I know each of them will impact the lives of our domestic students as well as students from other places across the globe. We want all of our students to graduate with global experiences, and these students will help us reach that goal.”

Student Duinny Pinzon Gonzalez said the people at Brenau are so warm and it’s great to be able to speak to everyone freely without feeling uncomfortable. She also likes that Brenau empowers women.

“In Panama, men are more likely to get an education than women,” she said. “I like how well we connect with other women around us and how great it is to share with them. I’m thankful for the opportunity for international students to come here. People appreciate other cultures and are open-minded.”

In the fall, students will participate in the International Friendship Program, which creates a support system for international students and promotes cultural understanding between those in the program. Those involved in the program will communicate weekly with the students and meet in person at least once a month for an activity that will bring people together and increase connections and understanding.

“Right now they only have the perspective of what it’s like for an American college student, but with the International Friendship Program, they’re going to get the other aspects of what day-to-day life is like for Americans outside of college,” Anderson said.

“It is essential for them to be able to meet people in the community or Brenau faculty and staff they wouldn’t normally interact with. They’ll get to see their homes and be invited along with things that we might think of as boring or not exciting, such as going to the grocery store — but for someone from another country, it’s a peek into what another person’s life is like, which is very interesting.”

The Brenau community will also continue to learn from the Panamanian students as more events and activities are held throughout the year.

“Brenau’s international partnerships not only strengthen our ability to provide world-class education to a growing international student population, but they also bring diverse experiences and cultures to our campus and community,” Skleder said. “It is truly a two-way learning experience.”