Panamanians strive to make their home country bilingual

Every semester since 2015, to-be teachers from Panama come to the university to learn how to teach bilingualism. Students attended orientation at the Sims Memorial Library on Aug. 30-31. The Panamá Bilingüe Program is an effort on the part of the Republic of Panama to become a bilingual country.
Coutesy of Rose Rogers

Every semester, Panamanians studying to be teachers participate in the Panamá Bilingüe Program come to the university.

The 28 students participating in the program this semester arrived Aug. 29. Orientation was held Aug. 30 and 31. Classes began Sept. 5. 

“I love it,” said Rogers. “I feel ecstatic every day I get to work with them. I’m a Southeastern alumna. When I was in school, I went to Panama for study abroad, so having the opportunity to work with these professors and work at the school is really great. And then, interacting with the students, they’re all so positive. They’re all so excited to be here. I know not only is it a fun, enriching program, but we’re helping them. It’s gonna really benefit them to be able to speak two languages with their future.”




The goal of the program is to help the Republic of Panama become a bilingual country. 

“The president of Panama, one of his major platforms was that he wanted to become a bilingual country,” said Rogers. “These are actually students who are gonna become teachers. The plan is for them to come here, learn English and then teach their students English as well.”

The program started in Jan. 2015 and has undergone modifications since that time.

“It’s definitely an ever-changing program because not only do we just have the students in class, we take care of them outside of class,” said Rogers. “We do field trips. We take care of their apartments, their living situation, so it’s always constantly something that we forgot to give them or to provide for them. It’s every little detail of their everyday life. We’re constantly trying to come up with new ideas or partner with different departments in school so they’re able to meet more people.”

William Ontenegro decided to participate in the program to prepare him to be a teacher.

“First, it is because of my family,” said Ontenegro. “My mother is a professor at the University of Panama, so I want to follow the same way. I love teaching because I have had many experiences at university. The beginning of this year, I was teaching grammar to some of my students from first level in the English school at my university, so I saw that I want to be a good teacher.”

From tuition and fees to books and living situation, the program is funded by the Panamanian government. Finances influenced Ontenegro’s decision to participate in the program.

“I was asking to participate in another country in Europe, but I had to pay,” said Ontenegro. “Then, suddenly, someone told me, ‘Do you want to participate in the Panama Bilingue Program?’ I immediately said, ‘Yes, of course.’ It’s free.”

Preparation for the program extends beyond pure academics. 

“We want them to be comfortable and have a nice time while they’re here,” said Rogers. “It’s a constant preparation of not only the financial aspect of it but of just getting them situated. Of course, we always want to do better and try new things that we know they’ll enjoy. Just from planning a field trip, it goes from okay, what day do we do it, where do we go, how do we fund it, how do we get there, will they enjoy it, what can they take out of it, what educational purpose does it have.”

Anna Arceneaux, a senior English major started working with the Panama Bilingüe Program last year. She described how the job differed from other student worker positions.

“I tutor the students, and I do a lot of things with them,” said Arceneaux. “It’s just a very unique job. It’s not like I’m just sitting and waiting for someone to come in. I’m constantly involved with them, helping them with something, or helping a teacher in the classroom. I’m always doing something.”

Participants in the program take classes in several aspects of English from grammar to vocabulary to reading and speaking.

“We have cultural enrichment seminars with Dr. Bria every Friday, and that’s kind of like a cultural immersion because there’s so many differences between country to country,” said Rogers. “We help them understand and kind of not go into that cultural shock that a lot of people go into. They just learn how to get by speaking English and how to live in Louisiana.”

Ontenegro discussed his experience with the professors.

“The methodology they are using is really amazing because it’s not just reading, reading, reading and reading,” said Ontenegro. “They use a conversational method, and their advice is really good. They enjoy teaching English to us. That’s the way we can improve our knowledge.”

Arceneaux feels that the program achieves more than bilingualism.

“It’s just a great way for people in their country to learn English and then also for people in America to learn that Hispanics have a great work ethic, that they aren’t lazy, and that they generally want to learn,” said Arceneaux. “It’s just kind of breaking down stereotypes, and that’s really what I like about it.”

Rogers discussed the impact of the program since its outset.

“I’ve had the opportunity to go to Panama last month actually to meet this group, and I mean just in Panama alone, we have so many students that sign up that want to be part of this program because they hear from past students what a great time they had and also how much they learned,” said Rogers. “It’s like an exchange program for them.”

The program also affects the university.

“I’ll walk around with the students, and I hear other students or faculty members go ‘Oh, it’s the new group of Panamanians,’” said Rogers. “Just yesterday, we went to the cafeteria, and the woman was like, ‘Oh, finally, I knew it was time you guys are finally back. I was wondering when I might see you.’ Like I said, they’re so great. The students are, and they interact as much as they can, so I think with Southeastern, it’s helped just integrate them into the student life. They’ll learn about our culture, but also a lot of the students are interested in learning about their way of life back in Panama.”

Ontenegro shared his experience arriving to Louisiana. 

“Since the first day I arrived, I started to go to different places, even though I don’t know the names of those streets something like that, but I like the attitude of the people,” said Ontenegro. “They are really polite even though some of them see me in a different way. The part of the university that I like is their Mane Dish. Not because of their food. Their food is delicious, but it’s the attitude of the black people. They are really polite. They make me feel at home.”

In her past two semesters working with the program, Arceneaux has witnessed Panamanian students come and leave.

“They end up really loving all the teachers and the tutors, and they end up getting really connected with everyone here,” said Arceneaux. “They feel really at home in Louisiana, and they don’t want to leave, which is really odd to me because Louisiana is such a bizarre place for them to come. They always cry, and they don’t want to go home. I always end up making really good friends with a few of them, and it’s hard to watch them go because I know I probably won’t see them again, but it’s very rewarding because I know I’m helping them create opportunities for their future.”

The program brings together students from across Panama.

“It’s nice too for the students because they meet other Panamanians from parts of Panama they’ve never been to,” said Rogers. “We’re spread out. We’re open to anyone. Anyone who wants to come study here in Panama can. There’s no regions that we don’t try to accommodate.”

Rogers explained why being bilingual is important.

“Panama is a hub for business,” said Rogers. “You have the Panama Canal. You have plenty of centers of business there. Just for them not even to be teachers but to grow in any of their fields, to be bilingual is phenomenal. I’m not bilingual. I’m working on learning my Spanish, but it’s really difficult. These students work very hard, but it is so beneficial to their future and for them to teach their students and help the new generation coming up to learn.”