Christen in Panama

Here's all my adventures and learnings from studying abroad in Panama!

Panamcham and the US Embassy — June 8, 2015

Panamcham and the US Embassy

Today has been one of my favorite days by far. It was mostly because of the visit to the US Embassy down here in Panama. Before we visited there though, we visited the Panamcham office. Panamcham, the business gateway to the Americas, strives to be “the primary advocate, educator and business catalyst for bi-lateral commerce between the United States and Panama.” (From the Panamcham website) The organization has over 450 members ranging from Dell to P&G to Copa Airlines. They are made up of several different committees such as tourism, CSR, trade and investment, electrical energy, etc. These committees, all composed of volunteers, are what make the operation successful. One sector that they wish to focus more upon is the public education system within the country. It is considered a weak link because of the lack of English being taught. Another that they are looking for help in is the agricultural sector. According to them, it is very outdated. I noticed both of these issues while in the country. It seemed that only the highly educated individuals were fluent in English and that there was a lack of technological use when it came to agriculture. If both of these issues became a main focus, I really think it would help Panama grow even more rapidly in their GDP. So now onto the US Embassy… Before going, I had an idea of what an embassy did but I learned that there was much more to it than just being there in case an American vacation overseas goes wrong. After going through some heavy security checks (it honestly kind of felt like airport security all over again), we had the privilege to have a discussion with four of the employees that worked within the building. They ranged from diplomats to heads of the security department. They opened the floor to us and allowed us to ask any questions we had. Listening to them describe what they do on the daily made me really interested in a potential career as an embassy employee. It seems to be like such an interesting career to pursue and it’s definitely something I want to look into. I’m so happy we had the opportunity to do this visit! Definitely something that I won’t forget.


Banking and Legal Advantages in Panama —

Banking and Legal Advantages in Panama

On Monday (May 25th), we visited the Banco Nacional de Panama and MMG to get a better understanding of how banking works and to learn about some legal aspects of doing business within the country. I don’t know much about banks in America, let alone Panama so I really tried to absorb as much information as I could.

Our first stop was the clearinghouse for the Banco Nacional. Basically, the clearinghouse handles all bank-to-bank checks within the entire country of Panama. All banks within the country must be apart of this clearinghouse and in order to do that, the bank must have reserved funds to use as collateral in case a bad check is sent through. Any bank outside of Panama can use these services if they pair up with a local bank. Approximately 65,000 checks run through the clearinghouse daily. To ensure legitimacy, the checks are processed both by hand and electronically. With only 48 people working in the office, I could see this job getting pretty crazy at times. When we visited at about 10:00 am, already $26,000,000 had gone through. I wonder how this compares to the amount that American clearinghouses process. After the clearinghouse, we headed over to see the banks main office and then over to one of their branches where we talked more about what the bank did in general. One of the biggest struggles the bank faces are laws regarding money laundering. It is very prevalent in Panama due to its close proximity to big drug countries like Colombia and Venezuela. I knew that this would be an issue but not as big of one as it really is.

We next visited MMG. They are a group that offers banking as well as legal services. Our lecture here was centered on the legal implications of doing business in Panama. During the 80’s, Panama had a bad reputation due to money laundering, drug trafficking and lack of public and private entities to assist the service sector (which makes up 80% of their GDP). Today, they are dealing with issues between Colombia and Venezuela, textile taxes and immigration problems. Despite all of these issues though, Panama is still booming when it comes to doing business there. I think the main reason why is because Panama has a territorial tax system. If a company were to register as a business in Panama, the Panamanian government only taxes them if they make revenue within the country. This allows companies to avoid being taxed multiple times so it really is a substantial benefit of doing business here! I wonder how many other countries offer this too. If I ever start up my own company, maybe I’ll be based out of Panama for this very reason.


Weekend Getaway —

Weekend Getaway

After jumping in feet first during our first three days in Panama, we took a little break from the busy city life and travelled into the interior to experience the more rural parts of the country and get a good idea of the Panamanian culture as a whole. We left early Thursday morning for our 4-hour drive to a town called Chitré. On the way we stopped to get breakfast at a little place on the side of the road that had amazing cheese empanadas. I’ve had quite a few of these from different places in my time here and these were by far the best. Empanadas are most definitely my favorite Panamanian food I’ve tried. (I’m not 100% sure if they’re strictly Panamanian but they’re everywhere here so I’m just going to assume they are.) As we were driving along, our tour guide/driver was telling us some facts about the small towns we were passing by. To me, the houses seemed to be kind of shabby and small. He then proceeded to tell us that these houses belonged to the middle-class citizens and it kind of blew my mind. I just can’t get past the difference in the living conditions between here and the US. I wish I would’ve taken a picture to show it. It’s just so surprising to me. We then made a stop at a church. We were told that it was the oldest church in the Western hemisphere. I’m not sure if it really was though haha someone did some research and found that there was one older in some Caribbean island. Either way though, the church was absolutely beautiful. We stopped at a school called INA after that. It’s an institute that teaches and prepares high school level students for careers in all aspects of Panamanian agriculture. INA was developed by a U of A professor so it was really cool to go there and see the impact that the university has made all over the world! We finally made it to Chitré after that. We spent the rest of the day exploring the small city. The girls and I found a neat cemetery and walked around that for a few. It’s so different from ones I’ve seen at home because all of the burials are done above ground and in mausoleums. We spent Friday and Saturday on two beaches. The first was Las Tablas and the second was in Pedasi. It was nice to have a relaxing weekend before two busy weeks of company visits and lectures!


Days 2 & 3 —

Days 2 & 3

During our second and third days in Panama City, we made visits to the Universidad Santa Maria Antigua (better known as USMA). It is a private Catholic university located right in the city. We went for a tour, a couple of lectures, and a fun cooking class! The tour consisted of walking around the campus, visiting their library, and visiting a little museum they had dedicated to Marcos G. McGrath. Comparing USMA to the University of Arkansas, it’s a really small. From what we were shown on the tour, it consists of a few large buildings, a small church, and some lawn areas. What I found most interesting though comparing the two is the difference between the technologies available for student use. At the U of A, we have an abundance of computers everywhere, and even products like Google Glasses but at USMA I didn’t even see one computer in their library. The only technology I saw was Smartboards in the classrooms. The difference was shocking. My favorite part of the USMA tour was the visit to Marcos G. McGrath’s museum. It was about the size of a typical classroom (pretty little) but it was filled with books, pictures and artifacts all about McGrath from floor to ceiling. What I enjoyed most was the talk we received from the woman working the museum. She told us all about McGrath’s history and the positive impact he made on Panama and the world. What she wanted us to remember though was how it was so important to be kind to everyone, the young and old, rich and poor, no matter what. I left that museum feeling very uplifted because of her encouraging words.

Our first lecture was by Eduardo Pazmino, the dean of the Finance Department at USMA. He spoke to us about the banking system here in Panama. The country doesn’t have a central or government bank like the US does with the Federal Reserve. Instead, there are two main banks here: Banco Nacional de Panama and Caja de Ahorras plus a ton of smaller, but still important, banks. The Panama banking system is structured to be social and this gives the country stability according to him.

The second lecture we attended was by Donaldo Fong. During this we learned all about the people, the country and the customs of Panama. These 6 things influence Panamanian consumers: social, cultural, economic, personal, and psychological factors. It seems to be very similar to American consumers with the exception of a few things. Panamanian consumers tend to go for more well-known and traditional brands. I feel like the American consumer is more open to new brands than the Panamanians. Also, the use of credit cards is much less prevalent down in Panama. The use of cash is more common. The most noteworthy thing I learned though from the lecture was the fact that Panama doesn’t really consider itself as a Central American country. They didn’t gain independence at the same time as the other countries, they have different customs, and the canal really changed the way Panamanians are. They don’t identify themselves as South American either.

On Tuesday we also went to the Allbrook Mall! It was so big compared to the mall we have in NWA. There were tons of stores with a lot of cute and cheap clothing but I noticed the quality of most of it was very poor. This made me wonder if the Panamanian culture is to buy trendy, inexpensive clothes that will last only a few washes. Personally, I like to invest a little bit in what I wear so I don’t mind spending extra on something that will last a while.


Primero Dia — May 26, 2015

Primero Dia

I’ve been in Panama for about 24 hours and we’ve already done so much! After we landed Sunday night and made it into the country with no hiccups, we made our way to the Ciudad del Saber (City of Knowledge for the English speakers). But first we stopped at a local store called Rey to pick up some necessities (food, because I love to eat). I was pretty surprised when I walked in tbh. I wasn’t sure what I was really expecting a Panamanian grocery store to be like but it reminded me of a local store we have at home called Harp’s. It was relatively small and had everything you would need. The prices though were little different. Shampoo and conditioner were much more expensive but produce and most alcohol (sorry mom) were a lot cheaper. I found that pretty interesting. After a long day of travelling we finally made it to our home away from home.

The next morning we started out with a lecture telling us about the City of Knowledge, like the history of it, what there is to do, where things are, etc. After that, we made a visit to the Innovation Center they have here on campus. It is a program that they started in 1995 that serves as a platform to help entrepreneurs start up their businesses. They accept people into the program that have seen an opportunity within some sector of the market, identified the need, and come up with a viable solution to the problem. Being accepted into the program seems like a great privilege to me because it gives you the opportunity to be surrounded by other entrepreneurs with the same passion and drive as you. We learned that one of the main reasons people fail when they start a new business is because they don’t have that kind of environment with like-minded people. A few other reasons why they fail are because they don’t know what the “problem” really is, they are unable to self-reflect (you need to be realistic), and because you are unable to share your ideas with others. I’ve never heard of a program like this in the US. If there’s already one, I wonder if it functions in the same way or if there isn’t, I wonder if it would be success or failure.

After that we ate lunch at a small restaurant that serves Panamanian food. It was really cheap and I got a ton of good food, so it earned an A+.

To conclude our day, we took a driving tour of the city with a local woman named Gloria as our guide. She told us all about the history, buildings and landmarks we passed. It was a lot to take in in such a short amount of time. The biggest thing I took from the tour was the gap between the upper class and lower class’ living conditions. The difference was so drastic. Where I’m from, the lower class doesn’t live in such rough conditions so it was a little shocking to see. Overall though, it was a great way to start off an exciting trip by learning so much history about the country I’ll be calling home for the next three weeks. I’m excited for what’s to come next!


Introducción — May 19, 2015


Buenos tardes! My name is Christen and this summer I’m studying abroad in the beautiful country of Panama! I’m a senior at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. There, I’m studying Supply Chain Management and Marketing within the Walton College of Business. Studying abroad was something I had always wanted to do while I was in college and the U of A offers so many options! They range from year-long exchange programs to summer internal programs so choosing one was really difficult. After searching through them all, I chose the International Business Seminar in Panama because it seemed to be the best fit for my degree. We would be studying a lot about the Panama Canal sooo that goes along perfectly with my Supply Chain major. Going on this trip wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for the Global Engagement Office and the Center for Retailing Excellence for providing scholarships for me and other students. A million thanks to them! In this blog, I’ll be documenting most of my Panamanian experiences and reflecting on interesting things I’m learning about here in country. Hope you all enjoy!

Where I'll be for the next 3 weeks!
Where I’ll be for the next 3 weeks!