Miguel and Orlando
Miguel Palma has an easy, if shy, smile under a shock of black hair that sometimes falls out of place to hang across his forehead. He stands a bit behind others in new situations, quiet and observant, content to listen. He pays attention, though, and he smiles when responding to questions.
Who are you? What is your name? What do you study? Where are you from?
Miguel answers these questions politely, and then often tells his questioners that he “doesn’t speak Spanish well,” despite the fact that he is in the midst of a conversation… in Spanish.
Miguel, 19, has just completed his first year as a pre-engineering student at Heritage University in Toppenish, Washington, within the Yakima Nation. He speaks Spanish at home, but feels insecure about his skills on this trip to Spanish-language Panama.
“I never took formal classes in it,” Miguel says by way of explanation, yet he converses easily enough with Panamanians he meets during his two weeks abroad.
Miguel and and his classmate, Orlando Pelcastre, 20, are the first Heritage University students to accompany faculty member Jessica Black, head of the environmental science department and director of the Center for Indigenous Culture, Health and the Environment, to Panama for a two-week immersive cultural and professional experience. In many ways, they are not students who expected to travel abroad during their academic careers: they are both first-generation Mexican-American college students who work to support themselves and their families while they attend classes.
Yet those facts make the experience all the more meaningful: two weeks in Panama bolsters their confidence in themselves personally and professionally, and gives them a window to opportunities for their futures that neither has considered before.
Like Miguel, Orlando has just finished his first year at Heritage studying environmental science. Orlando wears glasses and a nearly permanent grin. He has known Miguel distantly since grade school, but now they are figuring out how to be roommates in hotels and dorm rooms around western Panama.
Where Miguel tends to hang back and observe, Orlando is bubbly and outgoing. He talks to anyone and everyone in Spanish and English, and processes everything he sees with a running commentary of statements and questions: “This place looks like Minecraft. Is this area middle class? Do you think people eat that? Should I buy this?”
On the way to Panama, Miguel and Orlando had a chance to stop in Washington, D.C., where they visited museums and toured the nation’s monuments for a few days before arriving in Panama. Until this trip, neither had possessed a passport or been on a plane. Neither had traveled much outside of their hometown of Yakima, a small city just under 100,000 residents situated within the Yakima Nation in the center of Washington state. The reservation is high desert country, and agricultural jobs have brought in seasonal workers from Central and South America who have stayed and now make up just under 50 percent of the population.
When Orlando boarded that first flight in Yakima, he knew he was going to “the capital” first, but he didn’t realize it was the capital of the United States rather than Olympia, the capital of the state.
“When I got off the plane I was like, ‘Whoa, this isn’t Olympia,’” he says. “I just didn’t think about it.”
In Panama, they are blown away by the contrast between Panama City, with its tall buildings and urban infrastructure, and the conditions in rural western Panama, where they spend the majority of their time on the Ngöbe-Buglé Comarca. The comarca is similar to a reservation in the United States; it is land set aside for indigenous groups where they hold some land rights and some administrative power. There are no tall, modern buildings in the comarca. People live in small government-issue concrete homes or in traditional homes made of wood with bare earth floors. Chickens and dogs roam around small family-centered communities of twenty or so individuals, and settlements that do not lie along one of the winding, paved mountain roads that connect the comarca to the rest of Panama are accessible only by footpath.
For Miguel, the shock isn’t about the conditions of life in the comarca; it reminds him of the of couple years he spent living in Mexico as a small child. They give him a different perspective: he understands that not everyone around the globe experiences the same standards of living, but he is still taken aback by the disparity between the capital and the rural areas.
“You can’t really think you’re in the same place when you’re in the comarca versus Panama City,” he says.
For Orlando, that contrast hits a little harder: “The way I live back in Yakima — I have a floor with tile. And here, their floor is made out of clay. And they wear mostly Crocs in their house, and I go barefoot in my house.”
He is most affected by an afternoon watching children in a community in the comarca playing soccer with a plastic soda bottle. When the children are gifted a soccer ball, Orlando says he watched the children play “like it was their last day. I remember when I was younger, if someone brought me a soccer ball, I would be excited, but not as excited as they were. Because I never kicked a bottle to play soccer.”
The Heritage Connection
Jessica Black is an environmental science professor at Heritage University. She is the chair of the department, and also the director of the Center for Indigenous Culture, Health and the Environment. She became involved in the work in Panama through her father, Len Black, a retired business professor who also worked at Heritage. Len Black took groups of business students to the country to work on entrepreneurial projects in the comarca.
Jessica began accompanying her father to Panama when community members there expressed a desire for someone with an environmental science background who could help them collect data to guide their use of land and resources. Now that her father is retired, she has continued the legacy of his and Heritage University’s relationship to the communities there. She now visits the country several times a year, and works closely with the commissioner of international affairs for the regional Ngöbe government, Celestino Mariano Gallardo, to build partnerships with key stakeholders in and out of Panama to share resources around economic, environmental and agricultural initiatives.
Jessica waited to bring students to Panama, though it was always her goal to include students in the work there. “I wanted to have a clear purpose when we came,” she says. She chose Miguel and Orlando because of their academic accomplishments and their personalities.
“They’re very bright students,” Jessica says. “And I wanted them to experience literally the world, and I needed their help as well. They’re not just here as students experiencing a great adventure, they’ve been working.”
One of the tasks Miguel and Orlando helped with is running the three-day Comarca Research Alliance Symposium held in San Felix and attended by over 50 leaders from the Ngöbe-Buglé tribes and partners from organizations, universities and businesses inside and outside of Panama.
“These two students have connected with our Ngöbe-Buglé and our Panamanian colleagues to a degree that I haven’t really been able to,” Jessica says. “They instantly put people at ease because of their mannerisms, by the color of their skin, by their personalities, by their intelligence, and really because they are truly lovely individuals. And the communities respond to them.”
Heritage University students don’t often get to experience another place in the world as part of their educational journey. With just 910 degree-seeking students in both undergraduate and graduate programs, Heritage is a small private university. Many Heritage students are geographically limited to the Yakima Valley, Jessica says, for any number of reasons: family ties, economic resources, employment, immigration status. Many have not left the valley often throughout their lives, even to travel to the state’s largest urban area, Seattle.
According to 2017 data on Heritage’s website, eighty-five percent of Heritage students are first-generation college students. Demographically, 69 percent of undergraduate students identified as Hispanic/Latino, 14 percent as Caucasian, and 12 percent as American Indian or Alaska Native.
Programs to study abroad for a year or a term, or the chance to participate in short-term professional experiences or internships, are often expensive, limiting access to students whose families can pay or to students who successfully compete for grants or scholarships. Sometimes international educational experiences can be folded into student loans, presenting students from already stressed financial backgrounds with the difficult task of weighing the potential for long-term benefits of the experience with the specter of life-long student debt looming upon graduation.
Jessica makes it her goal to find opportunities for students to experience different locations around Washington, the United States, and abroad at this critical point in their development. Her position as the director of Center for Indigenous Culture, Health and the Environment provides her with funds to invest in student development experiences, including chances to experience a slice of the world outside of Yakima.
“I’m particularly interested in working with Panama because many of our students are Hispanic,” Jessica says. “And, in the United States, they’re considered an under-represented minority in many different fields and in universities. Here, these students, in many ways, they are the elite. They are university students, they are studying for amazing careers, a lot of our students are bilingual, and they are leaders here. And their skin color, and their accents, even their abilities in being farm workers in the past or currently, these are all positives here. They’re considered strengths.”
Jessica sees opportunity for native students from Yakima to come to Panama as well. “ There is an instant connection that is hard to describe between indigenous groups. They know each other. They understand that some of these issues are global that they’re facing. We talked about water, this is a global issue. We talked about the path to sovereignty and rights, these are global issues. The conversations between these two groups is really amazing. And if I can facilitate that, can help facilitate this global indigenous exchange, that is one of my major goals at Heritage University.”
With the first week gone by and the second underway, Miguel is embracing his Spanish-language skills and finding his confidence. He stops telling people he doesn’t speak Spanish well, and jumps in to help translate in his quiet, friendly way. At the beginning of the trip, he often punctuated his statements with a quick “psyche” to signal his uncertainty, or to hedge his bets in case he was wrong or someone thought he was overly ambitious.
“When I get my PhD,” he might say, then: “Psyche, I’m just playing.”
He still does this, but he also talks about his future plans for an engineering career with more boldness, less hesitancy, after meeting engineering students from Washington State University (WSU).
After the symposium, Miguel and Orlando spent two days volunteering with the WSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, and pre-engineering Miguel is suddenly in the midst of his peers: in order to complete his engineering degree, he will have to transfer from Heritage to another institution with a full engineering program. WSU is one of those partner institutions. The chance to network with the WSU engineering group only serves to deepen his commitment to his field of choice.
“It opened doors, opened my eyes,” he says. “I have more of a passion for being an engineer and what I’ll be capable of doing in the future.”
Talking to WSU engineering students about their experience in the program and shadowing Karl Olson, associate professor of civil engineering at WSU and advisor of the WSU chapter for Engineers Without Borders, is an opportunity to develop a personal relationship with a potential mentor for the next stage of his academic career.
He also saw how his future career could expand in a direction he hadn’t known about before: humanitarian work.
Miguel’s favorite part of the experience: “How we all worked together, and the community really wanted to help us, because they know it’s for them. We didn’t start the project, they started the project, they just need a little bit more help, some assistance, I guess. It’s not like we’re just creating it for them. They know what they wanted to do, they just needed a little hand to push them up, you know what I mean?”
Miguel served as a translator for the engineering students, most of whom had no Spanish language skills, and got his hands dirty clearing waterways, hammering nails, pouring concrete and carrying materials up and down slippery hillsides of red clay.
“I felt like I was empowered,” he says.
At the end of two weeks, Orlando and Miguel are ok with going home: Orlando is looking forward to a private bathroom, and Miguel is daydreaming of steak after a steady diet of rice and chicken.
Reflecting on the whole experience while buying some final souvenirs in Panama City, Orlando holds the people he has met close to his heart. “I want to go to other countries now,” he says, but Panama will always be special for being his first trip outside of the U.S. “The people from the community impact you in a certain way that you just can’t explain.” He says he might consider working as an environmental volunteer with the Peace Corps. “I never knew about it before,” he says. It’s another open door he’s learned about because of his time in Panama.
Miguel says the experience has shown him the importance of understanding different perspectives: “We’re just so centered in our general area, and we don’t want to go outside that area. Coming here to Panama has opened multiple doors for me experience-wise and just getting to know everybody and how everything is different. It felt like home, I guess.”
He pauses thoughtfully.
“I have no limits,” he says.