By Dr. Cinda P. Scott
Study Abroad Opens Doors:
At 20 years old, I elected to study in Golfito on the southwestern side of Costa Rica very close to the Panamanian border. As a budding scientist, I had no idea that my life was about to be forever changed through this experience. To this day, my time in Costa Rica remains one of the most important experiences of my life and is largely responsible for why I became a marine biologist.
I vividly remember the first time I went with my host parents, Doña Edith and Don Arturo, to Playa Zancudo. We drove for what seemed like hours down an unpaved, bumpy road to go to the beach. It was my official introduction to how families from Golfito spent the weekends. Inside of Doña Edith’s cooler were tamales, fresh fruits, and juices. I was in heaven. While swimming in the crystal blue water taking in my new reality, Don Arturo swam out to meet me. He was short and stocky and had a full head of magnificent grey hair. His skin was white and as much as he tried to tan, his melanin-deprived epidermis rejected the sun entirely. As he approached, I noticed the beads of water slipping off of his sunburned shoulders. I told him that he was getting red and he replied, “Cinda, I just want you to know that I am black.” My 20-year-old brain could not process this. What in the world was this seemingly white Costa Rican man saying to me? Then, in Spanish he repeated, “Cinda, soy negro. Tengo familia negra y entonces yo soy negro también.” (translation: Cinda, I am black. I have black family and therefore I too am black.) In his own way, Don Arturo was trying to connect with me and to welcome me into his family. Though I was confused at the time, having lived in Panamá for the past six and a half years, I am now able to understand the complicated nature of blackness in Latin America versus how blackness is experienced and expressed in the United States. Studying abroad opened my eyes to how different cultures and people experience and relate to blackness, which up until this interaction with Don Arturo, was very different from my lived experience in the United States.
My study abroad program had 19 students and I was the only black student in the bunch (see photo). Rather than dwell on this fact, I was determined to have the most amazing time, and I decided from the beginning to get to know the people who lived in the town. My adventurous spirit allowed me to meet local people and I soon became friends with many young people. These connections afforded me the opportunity to feel accepted and part of a community outside of my own. I learned Costa Rican slang, went out dancing and on dates, took long walks to nowhere with new friends, stayed up all hours of the night hanging out and practicing Spanish with my new friends, and thoroughly enjoyed getting lost in finding myself. Some of my program peers didn’t dare do half of what I did which I always found frustrating, and I could really never understand why a person would travel so far only to hang out with the same people from our group. Even now when I travel, I am always saddened when I meet people who say they are “travelers” yet never interact with people from the places they are visiting. That is not traveling, that's just passing through.
My Costa Rican experience afforded me a freedom, albeit briefly, from my identity as a skin color in the United States. Next to learning to scuba dive, this was the most impactful and life altering experience of my journey. That is not to say that racism does not exist in Costa Rica or throughout Latin America, as it most certainly does everywhere, but it does speak to subtle differences in the way in which people embrace and accept their African ancestry. Having lived in Panama for the past six and a half years on a small island, I am keenly aware and in awe of how people celebrate their African heritage. Whether Indigenous, Chinese-Panamanian, Afro-Panamanian or Mestizo, the recognition is made by all. In thinking back to Don Arturo's comments oh so long ago, I now have a much deeper understanding of what he was trying to convey.
Had I never ventured away and experienced life just being me, not Cinda that one black girl in the biology class, or Cinda the one black girl on her study abroad program, I’m not sure how I would have been able to handle what was to come in the years after my undergraduate studies which included working in biotech and navigating a PhD program. My experience in Costa Rica introduced me to a new way to look at and understand race and gave me much needed strength to push forward. It also brought to my attention my own biases and attitudes as a person from the United States into which I had been indoctrinated. I found myself in many circumstances using my US privilege in places where people from Costa Rica would not ever be able. For example, I once had to go to the hospital for an ear infection and upon entering and speaking in Spanish, my US accent pushed me to the front of the line. The privilege we had in Golfito as young, relatively wealthy, university students was something that I was not able to truly process or appreciate for years later.
Living in Panamá, I am hyper aware of my privilege as an educated black person from the United States. Here, I feel that I am seen less as black (as defined in the US), and more as someone from the United States, which has both positive and negative connotations. My economic status and position also influences the way in which I am embraced and accepted. As in many other countries I have traveled, people in Panamá identify first as Panamanian whereas in the US we tend to identify as our ethnicity or race (ex. Italian-American, African-America, Irish-American...). Again, that is not to say that ethnic and racial identifiers are not used in everyday interactions or language, but it does to some extent change how people treat one another. I am always fascinated by the way in which I’m categorized in the various countries in which I’ve traveled. In Tanzania I was called “cappuccino” incessantly, and in South Africa, I was “colored” and in Panama, the immigration authorities labeled me as “trigueña” on my official documents (interestingly, I had no say in my categorization. The government does this for you.). The US has such rigid views of skin color and what you are and are not allowed to be. Traveling the world has opened my eyes as to how limited the US acceptance of race and multiple identities truly is. The few boxes we are allowed to check in the US is dwarfed in comparison to the expansive options of skin color variations and identifiers around the world. Travel, and experiencing other cultures and places, has allowed me to put all of this into perspective and to simply be me.
When my students first arrive on program, they are immediately confronted with untangling their preconceived notions of what Panamanians are supposed to look like. The people they encounter are every hue of the rainbow and represent every mixture of Chinese, Mestizo, Jamaican and other Caribbean nations, and Indigenous (Kuna, Ngobe, Bugle, Wounan, Embera) one could possibly imagine. The rigid US definition of Latinx is thrown to the wind as students discover that everything they thought they knew is not reality.
Over the course of their time here, my students are challenged at every level with regard to their understanding of race and privilege as they navigate the idea of what it means to be Panamanian and how their preconceived notions impact and in some cases inhibit their own growth and understanding. The majority of students find great value in the exercise of examining Panamanian culture and history in order to understand their own. It is important to me that students walk away having a deep understanding that labels are labels, skin is skin (we either have a little melanin or a lot), and humans are human. Second, students become more aware of their own behavior in their home countries when they begin to understand and explore their host country with guidance and cultural and historical context. Third, students can readily see that their own prejudices influence their ability to perform (giving presentations in Spanish or interacting with locals) when their thought processes and practices remain entrenched in the racist ideals into which they have been indoctrinated. In the end, students learn that the process of decolonization requires deep self-reflection and an understanding of the role of colonization in science and conservation. While we can start this work in our home countries, there is great value in obtaining an education abroad and examining this within a different context.
The vast majority of students who study abroad are white and are women. In fact, approximately 65% of all 300,000 US students who choose to study abroad each year are women. There are many explanations out there as to why white women dominate the study abroad landscape, but the most popularly cited reason is that BIPOC students worry about the cost of studying abroad in addition to not having access to scholarships and other financial supports to study abroad. Additionally, it is well known that women are twice as likely to study abroad due to influence from faculty and parents, whereas men shy away from studying abroad the more they interact with their peers (Men and Women Differ in How They Decide to Study Abroad).
On average, out of 20 students on my program, I receive between 3-4 male students and 3-4 BIPOC students. I often pause and wonder why there are so few BIPOC students, but questioning this is quite naïve. We do know what is going on the same way we know what is going on in higher ed with regard to women and BIPOC professionals not being placed in positions of power or advancing in their careers. We are functioning in a system that was traditionally not designed to support BIPOC students studying abroad.
Throughout my lifetime, I’ve been witness to and have participated in programs designed to advance and promote the success of BIPOC students. As a young girl growing up in Lexington, Massachusetts, USA, I saw black and brown students from other towns bussed into Lexington through the METCO program. As an undergraduate, I first heard about the POSSE program and saw my alma matter welcome their first POSSE cohort in 1999 after I graduated. In graduate school, I was funded by both the National Action Council for Minorities in Engineering (NACME) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s EPP program. However, what binds all of these programs together is that while the financial support is there, too often, the emotional support is not. I was fortunate to have two parents, a PhD and an EdD, to support and push me to study abroad and take advantage of opportunity when it was available. Through my work in Panama, I hope to encourage and support more BIPOC students to study abroad and experience for just one moment the joy and freedom of just being themselves.
For my BIPOC students, I often have to remind them that the beauty of being different is that they have the ability to fit in more readily in the place where they are. Ultimately, it is up to them to find their own experience, which has to occur off campus and sometimes away from their peers.
My experience abroad allowed me to step out of myself even if just for a few months to experience life as a whole person. It is a feeling that I chased after for years, and am happy to say that I’ve now been reunited with living in Panamá. Receiving an education is a privilege and being able to study abroad is an even greater privilege because it automatically increases your ability to compete.
I urge all BIPOC students to study abroad. As we move toward an increasingly globalized world, your ability to compete greatly depends on having an international background and experience. Study abroad is not just about discovering who you are and having new experiences, it is about preparing you to join a workforce and a world that requires deeper cultural competence and understanding to make a change.
Now, where in the world are you going to study?
Written by Dr. Cinda P. Scott
Dr. Cinda P. Scott received her Ph.D. in 2009 in Marine Biology and Fisheries with a focus in molecular evolutionary genomics from the Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science at the University of Miami. Her work has included teaching and lecturing, administrative and grants management, and scientific research. Since 2014, she has led The School for Field Studies, Center for Tropical Island Biodiversity Studies program in Bocas del Toro, Panamá where she currently serves as Center Director. She manages a team of faculty, staff and students who are dedicated to understanding anthropogenic impacts of tourism on the natural environment of Bocas del Toro.
Her current research examines the health of mangrove ecosystems throughout the Bocas del Toro Archipelago in addition to maintaining interests in marine protected areas, coral reef ecology and conservation biology. Dr. Scott is thrilled to chair the Panel Programming Committee for BWEEMS and to be a member of the Outreach and Mentorship Committee. She is looking forward to developing inspiring panels for BWEEMS members at all stages in their careers. You can learn more about her mission to build greater equity in ocean science on her website www.cindaseas.world and follow her adventures on social media @cindaseasworld.