My Davidson | A Student Blog 16 Hours in Panama City: Politics, Economics & Cultural Immersion

a group of students stand in front of a sign that reads "Panama"

Ten students spent spring break in Panama studying politics and economic development with Prof. Britta Crandall.

Clara Smith ’24 reflects on her spring break trip to Panama with Prof. Britta Crandall, where they studied politics and economics through meetings with government officials, founders of nonprofits, and indigenous leaders.

About the Author

Clara Smith ’24 (she/her) is a political science and economics double major from Amarillo, Texas.

After graduating from Davidson, Clara will work as a Commercial Real Estate Analyst at Wells Fargo in Charlotte.

Over spring break, 10 students had the remarkable opportunity to go to Panama to study politics and economic development. We experienced so much in one week, traveling throughout Panama City and meeting with government officials, founders of nonprofits, and indigenous leaders. While every day was packed with exciting lessons and experiences, my favorite day in Panama was when we had a bit of free time to choose our own adventure. My day began outdoors at the Municipal Natural Park. Although secluded in nature, we could still see the incredible Panama City skyline through the trees. 

Panama City skyline

Panama City is actually in the jungle!

I desperately wanted to see a sloth, but the park ranger warned us that it was unlikely we would see any animals. Still, I was persistent (and overly optimistic). First, we got lucky and saw a small herd of ñeques, small rodents that look like miniature capybaras. We continued our upward hike and were told to keep an eye out for a sloth ahead. We slowed our pace, waiting to catch a glimpse of the elusive animal. Sloths are hard to spot because they rarely move, which makes them not easily seen by predators or by American students. We were in luck–the sloth was slowly moving through the trees. Yes, they are as slow as I expected. We watched the sloth for 30 minutes, and my cheeks hurt from smiling. 

a sloth sits in the trees

Sloth in Spanish is perezoso, which literally means lazy.

After a quick lunch, we put on our best tropical business attire and headed to the Tribunal Electoral, a nonpartisan government organization dedicated to maintaining fairness and freedom of elections in Panama. The Tribunal Electoral is considered one of the most well-run and corruption-free institutions in Panama. We met with Salvador Sánchez, who heads the Tribunal’s Institute of Democratic Studies. He explained the major problems facing Panamanian democracy, views on the current presidential candidates, and how his organization studies elections and electoral issues. We definitely took with us a few lessons for the United States electoral process.

a group of students stand in front of the Tribunal Electoral in Panama
a group of students stand in a classroom in front of a screen

We also visited the Panama Canal, and it was one of the most incredible feats of human ingenuity and engineering that I have ever seen. The force of water and the ability to watch container ships the size of the Empire State Building carrying 14,000 containers was mind-blowing. The Canal has also defined Panamanian history, from the early French attempts at construction, to the U.S. occupation and possession of the Canal and the area around it, to its current expansion and ownership by Panama. We learned first-hand the expectations Panamanians have for social investment financed by Canal profits, and how recent droughts have drastically reduced its capacity.

a group of students stand in front of the Panama Canal

Visiting the Panama Canal

On Tuesday night, Henry Griffith ‘24 said “What if we went to Game 7 of the Panamanian Youth Baseball Championship Series?” So Wednesday evening, that’s exactly what we did. Panamanian Youth Baseball is perhaps the most followed sport in the country, with young players hoping to make it to the minor or major leagues in the United States. 

a baseball stadium from the crowd

Attending Game 7 of the Panamanian Youth Baseball Championship Series

The game was fantastic, a classic comeback and underdog story, all played out in a modern stadium with hotdogs, beer, and popcorn. The fans went wild at every strike, ball, and base, and we cheered and yelled like everyone else. I’d bet that we were the only foreigners there, but that didn’t matter because we all shared a love of baseball, even if the addition of a pitch clock hadn’t made its way to Panama. 

I loved our week in Panama. Getting to learn about the country from Panamanians instead of simply academic articles, drinking geisha coffee, eating fish at an Emberá native village, staying in dorms on a converted U.S. military base, and making new friendships with other Davidson students and Panamanians was an incredible experience that I’ll remember long after I graduate. 

On the plane back to the United States, I thought about the friends I made and the lessons I’ll take with me in my final semester at Davidson, and how I can be a better, empathetic person after I graduate and begin working. After all, a liberal arts education forms a well-rounded and complete individual, and I’m so grateful to and our professor, Britta Crandall, for making this trip possible.