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Viva Panamá, Go Wilkes!

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By Francisco Tutella MFA ’16


Celebrating Panamanian culture with Wilkes friends are, from left, Henry Barrera, Raquel Cardenas, Wilkes intensive English teacher Dee Balice, Abdel Arauz, Keisy Gonzalez, Wilkes President Patrick Leahy, Panama Education Minister Marcela Paredes de Vasquez, Wilkes intensive english teacher Vito Balice, Alexis Anderson and Carmon Rodriguez. Kneeling in front are, left, Liriola Smith and Mariela Benitez.

The dance is called Congo. A woman and a man step close then twirl apart. She wears a multi-colored dress sewn in different patterns, he a colorful, tattered costume. Panamanian high school teacher Ana Aizpurua explains that his outfit, stitched from discarded strips of fabric, mocks the former Panamanian slave owners. The dance itself is a continual exchange of seduction and rejection accompanied by clapping and the occasional cheer.

Spectators watching the dance in the Henry Student Center cannot resist Congo’s allure. The dancers are joined by Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy, Panamanian Minister of Education Marcela Paredes de Vásquez, and Laura Flores, permanent representative of Panamá to the United Nations. University faculty, staff and administrators join the Panamanian teachers to form a giant conga line, kicking their feet and waving their arms as they circle the floor.

It was Panamanian Culture Day at Wilkes, celebrating that country’s history, dance and food. The event gave the Wilkes community an opportunity to meet the 19 Panamanian teachers studying on campus. It also celebrated the historic agreements forged by Wilkes and the Republic of Panamá. The visiting Panamanian educators came to Wilkes as part of the MEDUCA-Bilingual Panamá program – the first of several programs that will be part of a comprehensive partnership between the University and the central American country. MEDUCA is the acronym for Panamá’s education ministry. Other agreements have been signed with Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and with some of the country’s universities.


Liriola Smith and Alexis Anderson share one of their country’s dances at Panamanian Cultural Day.

An initiative of Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela, the MEDUCA-Bilingual Panamá program brings cohorts of teachers to colleges and universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to study English and learn education best practices. The program is part of a national commitment to develop bilingualism in



the country’s public schools. Wilkes is one of only 12 universities in the United States and just two in Pennsylvania participating in the program. The University will host three cohorts of Panamanian teachers each year under the agreement. The first cohort came to Wilkes for eight weeks of study starting in January 2016. The second group arrived in late May.

“Panamá is undergoing the process of revamping its entire educational system starting with the public school system,” says Rosi Ponce, Wilkes’ executive director of international engagement and a native of Panamá City, Panamá. “One of the goals of President Juan Carlos Varela is to modernize the public schools and to do it in a way that meets the needs of the country for generations to come. One of the priorities that the government has identified is to provide a bilingual education.” In Panamá, now one of the world’s fastest growing economies, business is conducted in English, Ponce explains.View More: http://knotjustanyday.pass.us/wilkes-panama

Panamá’s Minister of Education Marcela Paredes de Vasquez came to campus in February to sign an agreement paving the way for educational partnerships in fields that include education and the STEM fields: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Wilkes presented the minister with an honorary doctor of humane letters recognizing her extraordinary professional achievements as an educator, former university president, and as chair or board member of nongovernmental organizations promoting education and women’s roles in science and engineering. The minister gave an inspiring speech about the power of education, global understanding and partnership.

At an event honoring Paredes de Vásquez, Leahy highlighted the benefits that Wilkes brings to the partnership. “We are a full-scale university that can offer all of the programs and opportunities that Panamanian students need across bachelor’s, master’s and even doctoral programs,” Leahy says. “Yet we offer all of this in a relatively small, caring, mentoring environment that larger universities simply cannot offer.”

Leahy cites other American partners in the program, including the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Northwestern and American universities and Georgia Tech.



“Wilkes University and the country of Panamá share the same values,” Leahy says. “Both believe that the path to prosperity winds through education. We both believe that in an increasingly global community, we are all interconnected. And we both


Panamanian teachers work on group projects during class.

believe in the power of relationships.”


Paredes de Vásquez discussed these shared values at a breakfast with 10 Wilkes student ambassadors. A kind, easygoing and humble woman, the minister asked the students to describe their Wilkes experiences. Several students commented on their relationships with professors. Bella Jang, a political science and criminology major from Guam, shared how her professors helped her overcome her fear of participating in class discussions. Kaitlyn Sitch, an electrical engineering major from Weatherly, Pa., explained the research she has done with professors in their laboratories.

The minister noted the diversity of the Wilkes student body – native Pennsylvanians studying alongside students from Guam, the Bahamas and China, among other countries – and appreciated that 50 percent of Wilkes undergraduates are first-generation college students. She said, “We are looking for great partners. Wilkes is one of these partners. It is a small community, and there is a strong bond between faculty and students here. This kind of community makes students successful.”



Many of the Panamanian educators left their spouses and children to study at Wilkes, with many leaving their country for the first time. Here here they found a new family.

Eddie Serrano, who teaches kindergarten and second grade, says, “We really love the people here. We feel so comfortable, and feel like the people are family.” Serrano, who played baseball for six years on the San Diego Padres farm team, would return home just 12 days before his wife was expected to deliver their first child.

One member of the teachers’ Wilkes family was Mildred Urban, associate director of advancement. Urban, who is Hispanic and bilingual, planned the cohort’s extracurricular activities and accompanied them on cultural trips to New York City, Philadelphia and Jim Thorpe and on adventures like snow tubing. She says, “I bonded with them because I felt their kindred spirit.”

Their spirit continually manifested itself in laughter, dancing and smiles. Many on campus commented on the group’s enthusiasm and joie de vivre.

Domicella and Vito Balice encountered this enthusiasm and joy daily in the classroom. The mother and son, working under the supervision of Kimberly Niezgoda, director of Wilkes’ Intensive English Program, designed and taught courses on teaching pedagogy and technology in the classroom for the Panamanians. The two teachers and their students formed warm relationships. The Panamanians surprised Domicella with a large bouquet of flowers on her birthday. They also persuaded Vito to do something he had never done before.

“They got me to dance – twice,” he says with a smile.

Anne Skleder, Wilkes’ senior vice president and provost, recalls hosting a dinner for the group. “When I was planning the dinner, I asked Rosi Ponce, who of course knows the culture, ‘Should I get board games? Should I get cards? Should we do movies after dinner?’ And she said, ‘Anne, I think they will dance.’ ”

The visitors proved Ponce right. They danced to salsa music then played their own, authentic Panamanian music.



Not all of their study was in the classroom. In addition to field trips to cultural centers such as Philadelphia and New York City, they observed American education in action. The group visited Coughlin, G.A.R. and Meyers high schools and Heights Murray and Macklin elementary schools, all in the Wilkes-Barre Area School district, and two private schools: Graham Academy and Wyoming Seminary.

Second grade teacher Maribel Ríos observes, “The behavior is different. American students respect their teachers and pay attention in class. This makes it easier to teach the lesson.”

The special education classes at Heights Murray impressed elementary school teachers Andrellys Torres and Abdel Araúz. “It was so different for me because in Panamá I don’t have students with those conditions. It was special to see that,” says Torres. Araúz praised the special education teacher’s interactions with the students, the extra attention they received, and the practical skills that they were learning.

The visitors observed classes at Wyoming Seminary’s upper school. In Nate Fisher’s

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Teachers studying at Wilkes under the MEDUCA-Bilingual Panama program celebrate seeing snow for the first time.

sophomore theater class, the students introduced themselves and described in Spanish the scene they were about to perform, the conclusion to Shakespeare’s Othello. They also participated in a question-and-answer session with the Panamanian teachers. The students learned that the average class size in Panamá is 25 to 30 students, with some classes reaching 40 to 45 pupils, a far cry from the 10 students in the sophomore theater class. They also learned that for the Panamanian educators, this trip to Pennsylvania afforded them their first experience with snow.


Situated near the equator, Panamá has two seasons: wet and dry. When it began to snow during one of Vito Balice’s classes, the educators could not contain their excitement and asked to go outside.

“My dream came true when the snow fell. I was very excited and started to jump and have fun in the snow,” says high school teacher Alex Anderson.

Second-grade teacher Janeth Torrero built a miniature snowman, snapped a picture with her cell phone, and sent the image to her family back home.

Selfies and social media were key to recording their American experience for the Panamanians. The educators used their smartphones and the Internet to share their experiences with their families and friends in Panamá. By the end of the eight weeks, they had collectively taken more than 2,000 photographs.



During an emotional and teary-eyed completion ceremony on March 2, Skleder told the Panamanians, “Please know that you are and continue to be trailblazers, the first of many groups to come to Wilkes, but you will always be the first to come.”

Rhonda Rabbitt, dean of Wilkes School of Education, noted, “You came to change Panamanian society, but you also changed society here.”

At the conclusion of the ceremony, Carmen Rodriguez spoke on behalf of the MEDUCA cohort. “We want to say thanks to the government of Panamá for giving us the opportunity to come to this wonderful country. We say thanks to Wilkes University for opening its door to us not only to learn about methodologies but also to be successful in our life.”

On behalf of the group, Rodriguez thanked the Wilkes community, citing many by name. She forgot no one, down to the facilities team and the cafeteria staff. She gave special thanks to the Balices, saying, “We can say we are now better teachers because of you. You are the best…Once again, thanks, Wilkes University. You are now part of us. We will go to Panamá full of many anecdotes and experiences. We know we have a commitment to Panamanian education and our students and will try to do our best.”

The educators concluded the ceremony by chanting the motto they had developed with Wilkes faculty, staff and administrators that captures the shared vision of the University and its Panamanian partners: “Viva Panamá, Go Wilkes!”


Wilkes President Patrick F. Leahy and Panamá’s Minister of Education Marcela Paredes de Vásquez sign agreements for educational partnerships between the University and Panamá. PHOTO BY KNOT JUST ANY DAY


The Panamá partnership is an integral part of the University’s comprehensive internationalization efforts, flowing from the Gateway to the Future Strategic Plan, to bring the world to Wilkes and Wilkes to the world. The goal is to ensure a presence in Latin America and the Caribbean. The Panama work will be replicated in other countries of that region, and includes partnerships with foreign and domestic governmental agencies, universities, non-governmental organizations, and civil society to ensure an effective and sustainable effort.

  • MEDUCA-Bilingual Panamá brings cohorts of teachers to colleges and universities in the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom to study English and learn education best practices.
  • President Leahy and Isabel de Saint Malo de Alvarado, vice president and minister of foreign affairs of Panamá, signed an agreement in January for Wilkes to provide professional development and other academic programs to staff in the Ministerio de Relaciones Exteriores, the country’s equivalent to the U.S. Department of State.
  • Wilkes Provost Anne Skleder signed agreements with four universities to facilitate academic collaborations: Universidad de Panamá, Universidad Tecnológica de Panamá, Universidad Especializada de las Americas and Universidad Latina.
  • Wilkes is the only American university to sponsor the annual Feria Del Libro Panama 2016 from Aug. 16-21 in Panama. It is the fourth-largest cultural and book fair in Latin America, drawing more than 100,000. Partnering with the U.S. Embassy in Panamá, Wilkes will host educational workshops and panel discussions focusing on educational issues.


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