Friday 5: Lessons in Panama

We all want to change the world, make our mark, achieve our goals, and of course, succeed at it, and yet, not everyone pursues such a path.  However, for some, the path to that is focusing their time and energy on manifesting social change/projects. This summer, I set out to join two friends on an amazing five-week public health initiative in Panama City, Panama.  I had gone expecting to use “classroom Spanish” to teach over forty at-risk youth, ages 6-17, leadership, anti-bullying, and health and hygiene classes.  Now it wasn’t that this expectation was incorrect, for it was mostly accurate. But I had grossly underestimated just how much I would learn while I was there. Today’s Friday 5 are the lessons I learned on my journey.

Aprojusan1.) The Mission: The name of the initiative my friends founded is EDSALI – Educación, Salud y Liderazgo.  They had started it the year before by working with Dr. Maria de Jaen, the medical director of the Ministry of Health of Panama.  Dr. de Jaen is one of those individuals who focus their time and energy on not simply improving the lives of others, but enacting sustainable social change for the welfare of the community.  To familiarize myself with the background of the community and the children, I read the background section of last year’s EDSALI report.  It revealed that they often come from difficult economic backgrounds, dysfunctional families, and violence is part of their daily lives. In addition to these factors, according to their psychologist, their social, emotional, and physical well-being is also threatened by poverty and minimal adult supervision.  Consequently, they are more susceptible to becoming victims of violence, as well as economical and sexual exploitation.  Such circumstances often result in the abandoning of children in the streets.  Next in this chain reaction is the development of poor health.  Ready to start changing that, Dr. de Jaen founded the NGO created to help uplift the youth of San Felipe: APROJUSAN.  Serving as a safe center for children and youth to study, play, and participate in extracurricular activities, APROJUSAN seeks to inspire children to seek a bright future for themselves and their community. It was at APROJUSAN, that we were to try and promote change through the classes.

Casco Viejo2.) Teaching in Panama: After arriving in Panama the initially unpleasant truth was that I was not as prepared as I had thought; however, my inexperience was also the reason I learned so many things.  The first of which was what it means to teach.  Having been in the position of a teacher in academic and non-academic settings, I naively thought that I knew what it was about, and that all I needed to do was practice my speaking skills, know the material, present it in an interesting fashion, and entertain any questions that may arise.  The truth was, I had neither the experience of teaching such material, nor did I have much of a clue how to go about doing it.  Thankfully, my more experienced colleagues had it covered, and that’s when I learned of the power of experiential learning. Experiential learning is not about driving ideas into students’ heads, rather it is letting students explore, work, and think about ideas.  Experiential learning not only repeats the concept, but it requires students to apply those concepts in varied and dynamic settings.  That application is what builds understanding and true learning.  Evidently, a good teacher speaks less, and listens more.  While undergoing my own experiential learning of how to teach by actually teaching, another problem kept nicking me at my heels: Spanish.

Lesson3.) Communication: Having studied Spanish for nearly a decade, one would think that I would not have a problem speaking Spanish.  Yet, nothing compares to how much I learned living life in Panamanian Spanish for five weeks.  Without a doubt, struggling and adjusting to accent, speed, and slang for some time is a normal and necessary part of the process of learning a language. ‘Inept’ euphemistically describes how I felt.  Hardly comprehending the words of my students, and struggling to convey my own, I failed to see how I could be a half-decent teacher if I could not communicate.  Little time passed before I became hesitant to speak unless I had to.  Humbled by the new understanding that language consists of much more than conjugation rules, grammar, and vocabulary, I listened very carefully.  Shamed by my naivety and by the harsh judge within, I spoke very little.  Strangely, my students did not show much sign of noticing.  They showed the patience and understanding that I didn’t give myself. I wondered how as a teacher, I could not be patient with myself as a learner as I would be with any other student.  After the first few weeks, it became clear that the only obstacle in my path was my negative thinking, and that such thinking would hold me back not just there, but in any endeavor.  Foregoing fear of asking questions and speaking, my speaking improved, my confidence grew, and before long, it was time to say good-bye.

4.) The Power of Diversity: During our stay in Panama, my friends and I lived in a hostel with the students and staff of the Global Leadership Program.  Hailing from allGLP over the planet, these leaders and visionaries were inspiring to be around.  Having the opportunity to live, travel, and spend a leadership retreat with so many different people, my eyes were opened to the magnitude of similarities, differences, and similarities in differences between people from all parts of the world.  We may have not shared a native tongue but we came together in our struggles and different understandings of English.  In our respective cultural backgrounds, we came together through open-mindedness and sharing and enjoying one another’s culture.  In our individual strengths and weaknesses, we came together through teamwork and honesty, building trust with a shared desire to change the world, and most importantly through friendship. In this learning community, I discovered the importance and diversity of passion, the power of an idea, and the impact of an individual’s motivation.  As one works with others to meet challenges, discuss ideas, and bond with one another, it is clear that there is futility in the fear of being judged.  Soon, I developed a strange feeling of power, a feeling that I simply had to say the word and I could be a leader.

Life5.) Social Change: As if I had not learned enough lessons, I had one final epiphany about people and changing the world, this time as an outsider.  Humbled once again, the idea that social change is so much bigger and greater than an individual or single organization struck me when I realized that EDSALI and APROJUSAN are just the beginnings of creating a foundation for the true social change to happen, and that too by the hands of those who are most affected: the children.  If one really wants to help a community, one must make the community help itself, and to help it self, the community must know, understand, and treat the cause of the problem.  That can only be done through education.  When a community can help itself, that community ignites the fuel for change.  That affected community then becomes a passionate, effective, motivated, and sustainable source of human intellect and creativity in social change.

To have contributed the small amount that I did and to have learnt as much I have is truly an honor. Thank you APROJUSAN, thank you GLP, and thank you Panama.