A student’s journey from Panama to the US

Recently, a student from one of our partner communities in Panama was able to visit the students at Jesuit High School Portland who he worked with to build a court in Panama.  Here is the incredible story of his journey from the remote Panamanian province of Darien to University of the Ozarks in the US:


My name is Isaac Julio, I am 19 years old, and I am from Darien Province, Panama. I am a Walton International Scholar studying at University of the Ozarks. I face many challenges as a Darienita because there are not many opportunities in Darien for youth to find new careers, learn other languages, participate in social projects, and grow up as a professional.

As youth, I always liked to explore, to think in new ways and participate in organizations. Unfortunately, my high school did not give me the knowledge or the tools to build my character as a person and reach my goals. So, I decided to go to an English course on Saturdays supported by the United States Embassy and Isae University in Metetí, a community one hour away from my home. I attended around one year and half; during this time, I applied to be a CAYA (Central Youth Ambassador), and I got chosen. I went to Washington D.C., Portland Oregon, and Marquette Michigan in United States to learn about entrepreneurship, and environmental health. I learned so many things during this trip.

When I came back to Panama, I came with something new in me. I wanted to do new things, create projects in my community, and be a proactive student in my community. On March of 2015, I met a Peace Corps Volunteer named Dina Lovestain. I asked her if she needed help in any project and let her know that I was available to help. We soon began an English Course for Zapallal Community. Through her I met Anibal Cardenas, coordinator for Courts for Kids in Panama with backlashes in the United States. Dina and Anibal always kept me busy with projects and activities that involved leadership skills and effort.

In October 2015, my math teacher, Jeannine Quintero, told me that I should apply to the Walton international Scholarship Program. I did not want to apply to study abroad, but I knew that opportunities like this can change my life. Dina and Anibal were the people who took the time to help me write the essays for the scholarship. They also gave me tips, ideas, and they prepared me for the interview. I had to deal with a few stereotypes about being a Darienita when I was in the interview. The others students that went to the interview were amazed when I told them that I was coming from Darien province. Some of them ask me weird questions and others made wrong statements about my province, but I educated them about Darien. I didn´t expected that I was going to be one of the finalist in the final interview with the Walton directors, but it happened. The ex-Walton that interviewed me told me that my community service with Dina Lovestein in Zapallal community gave me points to be a good option for the scholarship. At the end of November, I did my last interview with the directors and they told me that I had to wait until march to know who was selected. At the same time, I was applying to Universidad Tecnologica de Panama and I passed all my admission tests so if I did not get the Walton Scholarship I would still have other option.

Dina and Anibal did a College Night in my High School to provide information about how to apply for Universities in Panama, National and International Scholarships, and what college would be best for your career. They gave me the opportunity to talk about my experiences during the application process for Universidad Tecnologica de Panama. I explained how the admission tests were and what I did while I was preparing for them. I was happy to encourage the students to go to college and look for opportunities because no too many students who graduated from high school in Darien go to college and that is a big issue that Darien needs to solve. Personally, I think that the Panama’s colleges should come more to Darien’s high schools and promote the careers for the future of our nation, but this does not happen too much. I was grateful that Dina and Anibal did the college night because it influenced many students to apply to college and change their lives. I hope that this project gets bigger and can reach more high schools not only in Darien, but in all the areas that have issues with higher education.

I graduated from high school with honors, and one month after my graduation I was attending Universidad Tecnologica de Panama. At lunch time on January 26th, I received an email saying that I was part of the Walton Scholarship, and I was going to study at University of the Ozarks. I could not believe it. I almost had a heart attack in the cafeteria. The new Walton scholars had a meeting to have an interview on the radio, the ex-Walton scholar Jazmin told that I am the first Darienita to be a Walton Scholar in the history of the Scholarship. I had to wait until August to go to college, so during the free time that I had I started practicing my English skills. Also, Dina told me about a project that Anibal and she were planning to do it in June called courts for kids. It basically takes high school students from the United States to build a court in communities that don’t have the economic resources to build a sports center. I thought it would be great to be part of this project that would bring so many benefits for my community, and I offered myself as volunteer.

On June 14th, 2016, the Jesuit high school students from United States arrived to Panama City, and I met with them in the 24 de diciembre to travel to Darien. The next day, we started with the process of building a court. We had to work a lot because the weather conditions were not the best, and the rain was the main challenge for us. I must say that the continuous interactions with the students in English was helpful for my English skills, and I felt comfortable speaking English all day long. Something that I never did before.

At the end of this project, when we saw the results we all cried because our effort was worth it. I learned so many things from the Jesuit high school students. They taught me so many words, phrases and slangs, but most importantly, they showed me the power of teamwork. They encouraged each other to give their best and accomplish this goal. They shared our cultures, thoughts, experiences, and dreams. Lucas taught me to have enthusiasm for what you do, Cam taught me to be kind with everyone, Gabby showed the power of a determined woman. Spending those days in this project was one of the most important life changing experiences that I have had.

 I am now studying at University of the Ozarks in Clarksville, Arkansas. I have finished my first semester in college, and in a few days, I will be traveling to Portland, Oregon to visit the Jesuit high school students, and Peace Corps Volunteer Dina Lovestatin.  I am glad to have had these experiences because I had the opportunity to discover so many things, meet amazing people, and grow as a person.  I became a proactive student in the University of the Ozarks and I am now involved with two student’s organizations. I recently went to Oklahoma to be a volunteer in a foundation that provides gifts for low income families. I am grateful for all the people who helped me get to the places that I am now and become the person that I am today.