April 30 2013
Lara Keskinkaya, BSILR '15
My trip to Panama was an incredible experience that I will definitely never forget. Without the ILR Travel Grant that I was awarded, I do not think I would have been able to appreciate this experience as much. The expense of the trip was very high for my family and I to cover easily and thanks to ILR, some of those charges were covered; it was a huge relief to know that I wasn’t paying for the entire trip out of pocket.
When we first arrived in Panama, I was nervous in anticipation of the living conditions we would have to endure for the week. Nonetheless, after a day or two, I felt that I was already accustomed to living in the conditions many other people in the area had to live in. Looking back, I am glad that I was put in the same living conditions as those who lived in the Darien region because I was able to understand more easily what those people had to deal with on a daily basis in terms of showers and sleeping.
Throughout our time in Panama, we spent a significant amount of time working with the students in the elementary school as well as the high school. When we were with the elementary school children, I learned more than I ever could have imagined from them. We taught them a lot about what rights they had as citizens of Panama. We played an interactive game with them where they had to say whether or not the statement was a right (e.g education). They were so smart, yet they sometimes didn't understand what was an inherent right, which we would assume to be common knowledge. As far as the high school students, we engaged in a debate with them while teaching them ways to resolve conflicts. I was shocked and amazed at how smart, confident and mature all the students were especially during the debate. They were engaged and delivered great points in an eloquent manner. Although we taught the students some things, they also taught me a great deal. Because we were in the poorest part of Panama, these students had barely anything in their lives: they lived in the poorest conditions, and they barely had enough food or clothes to live comfortably. However, they were the happiest and most generous and giving children I have ever had the fortune of meeting. I never once saw a student cry or whine about anything. They took every experience for what it was and even when I gave a student some food from our lunch, he didn't keep it all for himself. Instead, he started to divide up his food and share it with his friends. That truly made me realize so much about life.
In regards to the legal experience, I feel that I learned so much about Panamanian law and its differences with the law we have in the United States. While we were there, we worked with Renee, Alejandro and Marianele, who were all lawyers. It was so strange to see Marianele, who was only 23, already practicing law because of how different the education system is in Panama compared to the United States. On Monday, we helped facilitate the legal counseling that the lawyers were giving to the people of the region who otherwise wouldn't have the resources and knowledge to solve their own legal issues. I completed the general intake form for a man who was cheated out of money from his boss when he worked on a farm for 27 years. One day, his boss just left without paying him. It was an interesting learning experience hearing the lawyer advise this man on where he needed to go and what exactly he needed to do in order to get his money. There were other cases being heard at the same time including one pertaining to child custody and alimony.
The next day, we actually went to a man’s home that was trying to get a divorce from his wife who he had been with for almost 27 years. Approximately five students were at his home for over 2 hours and it was an experience I will never forget. This man did not know how to read and he had a limited education but his story was so touching to all of us. This was the day that I felt I had the most impact on someone’s life by just simply listening, sympathizing and doing all I could without being a lawyer to help him.
On the last day, we met the judge of the region and that was an incredible experience. We all discussed the law in Panama that nobody can be put in jail for more than 20 years and how there is no death penalty. We discussed whether we felt it would be better to increase the penalties in Panama in an effort to deter crimes such as drug trafficking and crimes that result from drug trafficking such as murder. It was interesting to hear their perspective and how truly different our laws and culture playing into those laws were.
Overall, I had an amazing time. I will never forget the group that I went with, the children I met or the memories and lessons I learned. I was able to practice my Spanish and to really connect with the individuals there by learning their stories. The cultural immersion was incredible and I truly felt like I was so accepted and welcomed into the community. Although the students from Cornell may have come from such different backgrounds and socioeconomic statuses than the students and community; the citizens of Darien were so welcoming towards us. I feel that this experience has made me much more mature and has taught me not only to appreciate the small things in life, but to realize that there are still good people in this world willing to help. After this trip, I feel much more comfortable in my decision to pursue a career in law and to potentially go back to Panama or other parts of the world that need assistance. Again, I want to thank ILR and the Travel Grant Committee for helping me fund my trip to Panama. Words cannot describe how much it has meant to me.