AFS-USA students gain cultural insight by giving back

An AFS-USA student with her Panamanian host father. 

July 23, 2013 | New York, NY – Eight high school students and two volunteer chaperones from AFS-USA’s Massachusetts Bay Area Team returned last week from a 14-day adventure in Panama.

The trip was one of AFS-USA’s new Group Programs, which allow educators and other youth leaders to provide groups of students with short-term global learning opportunities in line with AFS' signature intercultural experience. These programs are available in more than 13 countries and are customizable according a group's particular educational goals.

An AFS-USA student repaints an elementary school classroom in Dolega, Panama.

The recent Panama group program emphasized community service, which allows students to become immersed in a foreign culture through making real contributions to their destination community of choice.

The Panama group made contribution by refurbishing an elementary school in the town of Dolega, Panama. They repainted the school’s snack bar, handicap ramps and one of its classrooms, cleaned furniture, and provided new pencils for the entire student body.

The goal of these efforts was to give the school a fresher, cleaner look – one that will hopefully brighten its atmosphere and make students proud and eager to attend.

Integration through participation

In addition to giving back, the AFS-USA program participants benefitted from the rapid cultural immersion that results from true community engagement.

Students of the elementary school refurbished by AFS-USA students.

During the day, they worked among the elementary school pupils, gaining insight in to the students’ daily lives. In the evening, they spent time with local families, who hosted them throughout their weeklong stay in Dolega. 

The host family experience is always invaluable in a country like Panama, where warmth and hospitality prevail. Yet, it can take on a unique flavor during community service programs.

This is because service often turns visitors into active community members. It allows them to become communal assets, encouraging them to focus on how their presence contributes to the community, rather than how the community meets their own tourism or research needs.

An AFS-USA student with her Panamanian host mom.

Indeed, the recent Panama returnees observed that taking a stake in Dolega’s educational resources helped them become more integrated into Panamanian daily life. Many reported being amazed by how close they became to their host families and new friends in a matter of days.

A time and a place for tourism

After successfully refurbishing the school in Dolega and reflecting on the significance of their experience, the participants spent the second week of the trip indulging their inner tourists.

An AFS-USA student visits the Old City in Panama City, Panama.

They visited the Panama Canal, the old historic district of Panama City, and one of the country’s signature beaches.

They also hiked in the rainforest, swam under waterfalls and took a boat trip down the Chagres River to visit the indigenous Embera Tribe. On the way, a rogue monkey jumped from a nearby tree and boarded their vessel, taking the entire group by surprise.

Once in the tribe’s village, the participants were treated to a traditional lunch and a tribal music performance, complete with dance lessons.

AFS-USA program participants visit the Enega Tribe in Panama.

Before returning to the US, the group participated in an End-of-Stay Orientation, something all AFS-USA programs provide. At this orientation, they reflected on the most eye-opening aspects of their experience. They also discussed strategies for using their new knowledge and skills, including Spanish language ability, once back in the US. Maintainig momentum towards becoming a more globally competent and aware student is their ultimate goal. 

Learn more about AFS-USA's Group Programs and other summer study abroad opporunities:

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