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How 16 Panamanian valedictorians are helping enrich Brenau’s campus
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New Brenau University student from Panama Duinny Pinzon looks out from the porch of the university's Centennial Guest House Tuesday, April 13, 2021, as she completes a 14-day quarantine before attending classes as part of a new international partnership. - photo by Scott Rogers

Watching the city of Gainesville from their windows and front porch, Brenau University’s first cohort of 16 students from Panama can’t contain their excitement for the future.

After finishing up their 14-day quarantine, they will embark on a five-year journey at the university, one that involves earning a bachelor’s degree and undergoing cultural immersion. 

The students arrived last week as part of a partnership signed in November 2020 between the school and Panama’s Institute for the Development of Human Resources.

“We are so honored to have them on our campus,” Anne Skleder, president of Brenau, said. “We’re looking forward to having them be a part of the vitality of our campus, especially as we move into the fall.”

Rosi Ponce, executive director of international strategy and partnerships at Brenau, said the cohort is composed of men and women from different parts of Panama, all of which were valedictorians at their respective high schools. IFARHU, Panama’s highest student scholarship agency, selected the members from a pool of the highest-scoring students in the best public schools across Panama.

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College students from Panama Duinny Pinzon, left, Ann Mary Almengor, right, and Alberto Ortega are part of 16 students from Panama attending the university as part of a new international partnership. - photo by Scott Rogers

Each student was notified of winning the scholarship with an in-person surprise visit. 

Duinny Pinzón, who is pursuing an accounting degree, said she was in shock when she got the initial news of coming to Brenau. 

“I prayed to God a lot of times for this, and I worked hard on my assignments at school,” she said. “I feel so blessed.”

Like the other 15 in the cohort, April 8 marked Pinzón’s first time flying in an airplane as well as traveling out of the country. Although she is confined to the university’s Guest House for a little over a week, she already feels welcomed by the community. 

“I think it’s beautiful and amazing because the people here are so warm and kind,” she said.

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New Brenau University student from Panama Duinny Pinzon is in the process of being quarantined at the school's Centennial Guest House Tuesday, April 13, 2021, before attending classes as part of a new international partnership. - photo by Scott Rogers

The Panamanian students will spend their first year undergoing intensive English learning and cultural immersion, followed by a four-year degree from a program of their choosing. After the first year, they will move out of the Guest House and disperse throughout the campus, taking on different living arrangements. 

Skelder said having the Panamanian cohort on campus plays a part in Brenau’s mission to have its students graduate with a “global perspective as global citizens.” 

“We know the No. 1 way to reduce prejudice in the world is what we call the contact hypothesis,” Skleder said. “That means people have to be in direct contact with people who are different from them. They have to be eating with, going to class with, going to study groups with people who are different from them. So, this helps that goal.”

Alberto Ortega, a member of the cohort, said he dreams of using what he learns at Brenau to not only help his family in Panama, but also the impoverished members of his community.

Ann Mary Almengor, one of the Panamanian students, said she intends to earn a bachelor’s in finance, so she can work at the Panama Canal. While she’s on campus, Almengor said she hopes to be able to share her culture with others and hear about theirs as well.

“The people are so lovely here, and I love it,” she said. “I want to learn a lot about other countries because here there are so many people from other countries.”

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