PANAS: How Panamanian students at USI are making an impact


Photo courtesy of USI photo services

Nine students from Panama joined the USI community as a group in 2018.

Tegan Ruhl, Staff Writer

In 2017, the National Secretariat of Science and Technology of Panama approved USI as a recipient of its Institute for the Formation and Use of Human Resources public schools’ scholarship program. Over the last four years, the scholarship has promoted a rise in enrollment among Panamanian exchange students living on campus. Now in 2022, the first recipient of the scholarship is graduating from USI. 

Jotam Chen, senior industrial and manufacturing engineering major, was the first Panamanian student to arrive on campus after receiving a scholarship through the IFUHR  scholarship program.

Chen holds his honors alumni certificate and an Archie plushie outside the Screaming Eagles Arena. (Photo courtesy of Jotam Chen)

Chen’s interest in coming to USI came not only from the Applied Engineering Center and the resources campus had to offer, but also from the welcoming environment on campus as well. 

“The university seemed to be really welcoming overall,” Chen said. “Also how easy it was to connect with the people. That basically brought up the idea of USI in Panama. That was the main deciding factor.” 

Chen had to excel academically and work hard to even be considered for the scholarship given by the Panamanian government. 

“I was at the top of my class when I graduated,” Chen said. “Basically, you choose what university you’re interested in. If you excel academically, like in high school, you have the ability to apply for this scholarship. You go through the interview process, and then from there, they say whether you get the scholarship or not.”

Although Chen’s hard work was rewarded with a full-ride scholarship to USI, he was still nervous about going to school in a different country. Nevertheless, the friendly community on campus quickly helped him feel comfortable at his new residency. 

“I’m a very self-driven person, but sometimes I was a little nervous about the language barrier,” he said. “It was really apparent to me how quickly everyone was welcoming to me. That barrier that I thought I had was really imaginaries. I was able to overcome that really quickly and do well in my classes. I got involved with things really early, like the Amigos orientation leader, student ambassadors, international club. All of those involvement opportunities really got me connected with the USI community.” 

Chen has been heavily involved on campus in his four years at USI. His involvement includes serving on the student advisory board for the Pott College and being in the Honors Program. His favorite organizations to be involved in are Amigos orientation leaders and student ambassadors because he enjoys welcoming new people to campus and helping them transition into campus life. 

Looking over his four years at USI, Chen describes his experience as “amazing.” 

“The fact that you leave everything behind to take on this challenge, you expect that challenge to be rewarding in a way, right?” he said. “It has been challenging but rewarding. I’ve been able to make lifelong friends that I’m going to have for a lifetime, so that has been really, really good. Classes, specifically for engineering, have been really helpful for my major because I work at Toyota in Princeton, Indiana. So it’s been really great to not only connect with local people and international people from all over the world, but also from an academic and professional standpoint. I have been able to get what I needed to succeed. It just feels amazing.” 

Chen’s current plans after graduation include starting off his career as an innovation engineer at Toyota Modern Manufacturer. He said he’s thankful for the scholarship from the Panamanian government and the international office on campus for assisting him in finding a job. 

As the first Panamanian student graduating from the scholarship program, Chen is excited to see more Panamanian students coming to campus. 

“I hope that all the people that are coming after me really keep doing what they’re doing,” he said. “I see them doing amazing things. It shows that we’re all passionate about something, and they see everyone doing something to show that. So it’s really exciting to be the first one, but at the same time, this is a cohesive effort that we have all done. It really shows the talent that we can bring to the table abroad.” 

Chen is not the only Panamanian student who is making an impact on campus. In fact, many of the Panamanian students on campus are passionate about being involved and connecting to the community on campus. 

“Involved on campus? I’m in everything I think,” said Yoel Alvarez, a freshman psychology major. “I’m in Panas, iClub and every other activity that is here on campus. I like to be involved in everything, to be honest. Especially now in my major, all that kind of research, psychological research, volunteer opportunities, all that kind of stuff.”

Panamanian students gather together with the UC West and UC East queens in celebration of the PANAS SpringFest 2022 Panamanian carnival. (Photo by Kyla Dagatan)

Alvarez went through the same scholarship process with the Panamanian government as Chen did. He said USI was one of his options for a possible school and agreed to attend school here on a whim. However, he particularly enjoys the friendly atmosphere on campus. 

“Everyone here is so friendly,” Alvarez said. “You don’t feel like you’re far from home. You feel like you’ve been here your whole life. I haven’t experienced any discrimination or racism. It just seems because everyone is so nice, so to really feel that friendly community here is really cool.” 

Alvarez’s favorite thing to be involved with on campus is the Panamanian Association, aka PANAS. He said he loves putting on Panas activities because he sees it as a way to represent his culture in another country. 

His favorite event the organization has put on so far is the PANAS Connection Carnival because it showcases three big events where they can show Panamanian customs. He also sees the carnival as a way to advertise that Panamanians like to party and dance. To him, it’s a great way to showcase Panamanian culture. 

“The Carnival is one of the biggest events in my country,” said Hugo Chavez, freshman biochemistry major. “Being able to show the Panamanian carnival here to students at USI, that part of Panas was just perfect.”  

Chavez serves as the social media coordinator for PANAS and the vice president of the Spanish club on campus. Next semester, Chavez will serve as vice president of PANAS and Alvarez will serve as the president.

(Left to right) Yoel Alvarez, freshman psychology major, and Hugo Chavez, freshman biochemistry major, moderate PANAS SpringFest 2022. (Photo by Clare Girten)

Alvarez and Chavez both hope to see more involvement within the international community on campus. They look forward to more international students coming to campus and interaction between American students and international students on campus. 

“I just want to see more internationals,” Alvarez said. “We are 100 Panamanian students, so it’s going to be cool to see more countries and more diversity.” 

“I really want to see international students interact even more with students from the United States,” Chavez said. “I feel that sometimes at events, students feel like because they are not international, they cannot participate. I feel like it has to be the opposite. I want the international students to interact with the students from here. I also want to create a space where everyone feels really comfortable with each other, and they feel like they don’t need the characteristics of a group to be a part of that group.” 

Arguably, the most important thing Alvarez and Chavez want students to know about PANAS is you don’t have to be Panamanian to be a part of the group. 

“PANAS is not just for Panamanians or international students, it’s for the whole USI community,” Alvarez said. “We just want to make friends, and we want to share time with them.

The sad thing is going to a PANAS activity and seeing all the Panamanians and just a few Americans. The idea is to share and make friends in at least one activity so someone can say, ‘At least I know a Panamanian.’”

(Left to right) Kaelyn Moreno, cultural coordinator for PANAS, and Xenia Adames Chanis, president of PANAS, kick off the PANAS Springfeast 2022 Panamanian carnival. (Photo by Clare Girten)

“You don’t need to be born in Panama to be Panamanian,” Chavez said. “You just need to be involved with us. You just need to be our friend, and we can call you Panamanian. You don’t have to be Panamanian to be a part of PANAS.” 

Under the leadership of prominent Panamanian leaders, PANAS will continue to be a thriving organization on campus for many years to come, hoping to create more impact and involvement between students on campus. 

“We just want to spread that every Panamanian wants to be a friend to the whole university,” Alvarez said. 

“Everybody, come be a Panamanian,” Chavez said. 

Students can get involved in PANAS and iClub through the Multicultural Center on campus or through the EagleSync app on Blackboard through myUSI.