Since freshman year of college I had dreamed of studying primates in the wild. Sadly, many species of primates are becoming scarcer every day. Panama is no exception. Fortunately, I was able to see monkeys and many other types of wildlife at different points during the trip. It was the first time I had been around so many students that also felt exhilarated by the natural world. Granted, we all have different passions and goals. What matters is that all of us left knowing 20 more people invested in protecting the environment.
In Panama City, we settled into our Spanish classes and new homestays. The city allowed me to practice my Spanish and make new friends that challenged my perspective of the world. However, it was our time spent outside of the city that changed my perspective and even my future goals. We studied tropical ecology by practicing research methods “in the field.” Disconnected from the Internet made me feel more connected to the places and communities we visited. Sometimes we were without cell service. I tried to take a mental picture of every moment. The 7am walks along the hilly road nestled between the emerald green mountains veiled by the morning mist. Bananas that tasted like crisp apples. Planting tiny broccoli seedlings beneath the relentless midday sun. Walking barefoot through rivers and on sandy island soil. Nighttime star walks and celebrating my birthday with my homestay family. There are so many more memories I could list here. I picture every study abroad student carrying these precious moments with them wherever they go next in life. I now know that I want to dedicate my life to conservation and preserving the natural world.
One experience in particular stands apart from the rest. Each student is required to conduct independent research for three weeks at the end of the semester. Prior to leaving the country I had planned to conduct a study related to primates. I changed my proposed project mid-semester. In the community of Cerro Punta I had stayed with an environmental activist and her family. She informed us that people in the area had lost access to resources after the construction of hydropower facilities. I left Cerro Punta knowing I would someday return. I chose to conduct research on community perspectives of hydroelectric development with the intention of working with the same environmental activist. In three weeks, I became far more invested in local water politics than I would have ever imagined.
Once again, I left Cerro Punta with the intention of returning in the future. I came to Panama aspiring to become a primatologist. I left knowing that I have a home in Panama and a commitment to studying the conflict over water that is taking place throughout the country. At the moment I am preparing to apply for grants to support future research in Cerro Punta. I hope to return after graduating next spring. Sometimes plans change.