Paying It Forward: The Dream Scholarship in Panama

Paying It Forward: The Dream Scholarship in Panama

Imagine you’re nineteen years old. You live in a small house off the side of a dusty road in rural Latin America. You wake up right before the sun rises. The cock crows. You rub your groggy eyes, shuffle out the door, and step into the already humid morning. You board a crowded little bus. It’s cramped, sweaty, people are sitting on you. You travel three hours down a bumpy road to get to the capital city to take English classes at university. After you spend the entire day in class, you travel another three hours back home to help your mom, dad, and siblings work in the field.

That’s just one day in the life of Julio Moreno, one of the most determined English students I met during my Fulbright in Panama. And while Julio had to wake up early every morning, he never stopped dreaming of being something bigger.

We take for granted the ability to speak English. Let’s face it: it’s one of the most frustrating languages to learn! Yet, English is the language of global business and travel, millions of people study it around the world, and hundreds of Americans travel abroad to teach it every year.  I was one of those Americans, and Panama was the country I traveled to.

I’m Panamanian-American but I grew up in Long Island, New York. When I was little I listened to my grandma rave about how beautiful Panama was, drinking coconut milk on the pristine beaches of San Blas, hiking the rolling mountains of Chiriqui, dancing salsa to the fusion of Spanish and Afro-Caribbean music in my family’s hometown in Colon. I yearned to serve the country of my heritage. So I applied for the Fulbright, whose goal is to foster mutual understanding between the U.S. and other countries. The Fulbright gave me the chance to teach English at the University of Panama.

One of the students that stood out to me the most was Julio. Despite that daily 6 hour commute to and from Panama City to take my English classes, Julio never lost his love for learning.  He’d practice any chance he could get, he’d stay after class to go over grammar, and he’d have a new question about a weird idiom he came across. One time he asked me in class: “Leland, what does “shit hits the fan” mean? I couldn’t find that in my teaching manual! But Julio especially loved listening to speeches of Martin Luther King that I played in class. His favorite quote: “Even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow I still have a dream.”

Julio’s dream was to become an English teacher, and many of my students shared that dream.  But the hard truth was that that dream was difficult to obtain. The organization Education First did a study in 2011 that showed that Panama was 40th out of 44 countries in terms of access to English education.  The United States has had close economic ties with Panama since the canal was built in 1914, and many American companies still exist in Panama. So even though Panama is a Spanish speaking country, knowing English is essential to get decent paying jobs to provide for your families.  But young Panamanians from humble backgrounds, especially those who are ethnic minorities, don’t have the same access to education that their wealthier counterparts enjoy.

Many Panamanians will tell you that this is a class issue or a rural-urban divide. But deep down beneath the fabric of Panamanian society, it’s also a race issue. This has to do with Panama’s history of race relations. When my grandma, an Afro-Panamanian, grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, she endured segregation, where whites and colored people were separated by “gold” and “silver” facilities.  She was never allowed to eat at gold restaurants or drink at gold water fountains. A civil rights movement like the one Dr. King led here in the states never truly materialized in Panama, and the vestiges of racial discrimination linger today. Panama prides itself on being a multicultural society, but racism is not a part of the national conversation. Ask any Panamanian about the neighborhoods like San Miguelito, Monagrillo, or my family’s hometown of Colon, and they’ll tell you that most of the poor people are dark skinned. Many of my students were from these areas. I realized that, had it not been for my grandparents’ fortitude and sheer luck, my family could have ended up in the same situation that my students were in. I could have ended up in the same situation.

I wanted my students to see a world outside their own, to give them an opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have had. So I announced to the University of Panama that I wanted to launch the first study abroad program for students of color and low socioeconomic backgrounds to study English in the U.S. I called it the Dream Scholarship in honor of Dr. King.

It wasn’t easy getting the Dream Scholarship off the ground. I went all around Panama City, contacting businesses, banks, NGOs, and any individual who might lend a hand. And I always got the same reaction: They’d see me, see how young I was, 22 years old at the time, already sweating through my shirt and tie, and they were skeptical. I started to doubt myself. Maybe I was too young to pull this off. Why am I even doing this anyway? It’s not a part of my Fulbright obligation. I should just finish up my teaching, pack my things, and head back to Long Island.

A few days later, Julio invited me to spend a week at his home. And for those days, I took that bus ride with him, worked with him and his family out in the fields. It was from that experience that Julio’s struggle became my struggle. His pain became my pain. His dream became mine. When I returned to Panama City, I asked the Fulbright Alumni Association of Panama for help. They offered me advice, expertise, and introduced me to possible donors. I also got the students involved. They organized a bake sale, a talent show, posted ads around campus. Then the U.S. embassy got on board and gave us a U.S. government grant. Then, a bank gave a donation. Then another NGO, then another school.

Before I knew it, the dream took on a life of its own. We had formed not just a network in Panama, but a global network, with donations and support coming from organizations, friends, and family from different countries, all connected through handshakes, phone calls, and social media. We ended up raising enough money to send five Panamanian students and one professor to Murray State University in Kentucky to learn English and learn about Martin Luther King and his commitment to community service.  Then, the Dream Scholars returned home and served their communities by teaching English in local schools or working with the U.S. embassy on community service projects.

Julio was one of the first Dream Scholars. He said the Dream Scholarship changed his life forever. His English not only improved, but he also made friends with American and international classmates.  Now he is an English teacher and is currently in the process of applying for a Fulbright to get his master’s degree in Linguistics in the United States.

The Dream Scholarship (DS) is almost three years old now, and DS alumni have gotten good jobs as English teachers, flight attendants, and translators. The Fulbright Association continues to help amplify my message, by providing me the chance to speak at last year’s Fulbright National Conference in Washington, DC, and this year’s TEDxFulbright event in Santa Monica, CA. Each year we gain more partners, and we’re even planning to expand to other universities both in Panama and the U.S. this year. This dream became a reality, because the Fulbright program helped me and my students reach our dreams. I owe it all to the Fulbright.


Guest post by Leland Lazarus

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