“They need to see this,” insisted Becky Johnson, Resource Management professor in TCU’s Department of Environmental Science. “Five minutes out there changed their lives.”
Professor Johnson and a team of TCU students had just been walking on mud flats outside Panama City, completely covered with plastic waste brought in by the Pacific tide. They were accompanied by Julio Montes de Oca Lugo and Sander Carpay of the NGO Wetlands International, as part of TCU’s March 2015 Global Academy program based at the City of Knowledge in the former Canal Zone.
“So many problems are created by people just thinking of the immediate, and not the future,” reflected Ryan Mitchell, a student on the Wetlands team led by Professor Johnson.
“Change happens slowly, and you don’t have to solve every problem in the next few years,” Montes reminded the students.
Back on the bus, Professor Johnson emphasized the political and administrative complexities the students will face later, in their working lives. “It’s all these little silos, doing their own job,” she pointed out. “And we’re getting a bit better about it, but not very, and not very fast. Y’all have sometimes heard us talk about silos at TCU – how the people in Environmental Science don’t talk to the people in Communications. Those are the barriers we’re trying to break down in the Global Academy. It’s no different in the permitting world.” For example, she said, “Water is thought of as something to be gotten rid of. That’s the way engineers think about it.”
“Those are tough decisions,” agreed Julio Montes. “Those are political decisions, but they have an economic impact.” With Panama’s booming economy, he pointed out, “There is money to do things the right way.”
TCU’s Global Academy places students in cross-disciplinary teams, then partners them with Panamanian non-governmental organizations to study chronic social, economic and environmental problems. The NGOs are based in formerly U.S.-owned buildings repurposed since the Canal Zone reverted to Panamanian control. At the end of their intensive visit, the TCU students give presentations proposing solutions.
“The presentations are always fun,” said Becky Johnson, “because the students take so much on board over these days.”
“The program is meant to put together people from different departments to work on an issue,” said Samira Jubis, a TCU student from El Salvador who took part in the Global Academy. “At the end you see that a problem can be tackled from different perspectives.”
The Global Academy is “very helpful,” said Monica Lopez of CATHALAC, another Panamanian environmental NGO. “We hope that the information that they collect will help us to give more input.”
Samira Jubis was one of two international students who participated in the March 2015 Global Academy in Panama, along with 16 TCU students from more traditional North American backgrounds.
“I think it’s really important that U.S. people come here,” said the other international student on the trip, Erika Hjelkrem from Ecuador. “I think the point is to take you out of your comfort zone. Because in the end everything is really integrated, really interrelated.
“I really like the idea of globalizing my mind. I think if you have many different points of view, you can act wisely and talk wisely. When you travel you have a lot of contact with people, and people underestimate that. You impact them, and they impact you.”
What Global Academy participants appreciated most was the opportunity to be directly involved in ongoing practical, ground-level work.
“It’s a nice change to be actually doing something, as opposed to just going through the motions of school,” said Ryan Mitchell of the Wetlands student team.
“So much of going to college is hearing, ‘Oh, you’re going to apply this someday,’” agreed Robert Hillery.
“This trip has been awesome,” said student Allegra Hernandez. “Because we get so stuck in that TCU bubble. It’s nice to get out and see that there’s something I can do to help with a real problem.”