There are so many differences between my high school in the country of Panama, where I grew up, and the United States, where I now attend college. This series, In Perspective, is meant to give you an inside look at how education is conducted both domestically and abroad. Thus, here is the story of my education in a far off country.

The Logistics of an Education in Panama

I graduated in December 2012 from my high school, Colegio San Agustin, in Panama City, Panama. I think that’s one of the main differences between school in the US and school in my country: the school year starts in February and ends in December, because Panama only has two seasons (rainy season and dry season). Dry season extends from December to March, so that’s when vacations are.

My awesome school!

My awesome school!

An important part of my story is that public education in Panama is really bad, at least in the city where I grew up. If you want a decent education, you must certainly have to go to private school. Thus, my high school was private and Catholic. It had a really strong math and science program, but not a good English program. Luckily, I learned to speak English in my elementary school, Oxford International School. Also, for the most part, in Panama, high school (or rather, “secondary school”) is considered to be from seventh grade through twelfth grade.

Classes and Diplomas

Growing up and watching American TV shows, one of the things I found super cool was that students would walk from classroom to classroom to go to their classes. That’s not the way it is in Panama. You are assigned a classroom the beginning of the year, and that’s where you spend every day. We don’t get to pick classes, either. Each school has a set of subjects assigned for each school grade. Usually, you take 8 – 15 classes each year. For example, during my senior year of high school, for example, I was taking Calculus, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Literature (Spanish), English, Religion, Physical Education, and Philosophy. We don’t have semesters either; we have trimesters, and subjects are taught the whole year. They don’t change every trimester.

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Graduation! We don’t use a graduation gown in my school. Girls wear white dresses and boys suit and tie!

The classes you take ultimately depend on the “Bachiller” (or Bachelor) you’re aspiring to get for high school graduation. There’s a bunch of them right now, but the most common are Science, Arts, and Commerce. Most schools make you pick one before tenth grade, so you specialize in one area and have fewer classes.

In my school, a student graduated with all three. Science is pretty self-explanatory, Arts has more to do with humanities than actual art, and Commerce has to do with accounting, finance, etc. (I wasn’t taking any commerce classes my senior year because we graduate from Commerce in tenth grade). Your Bachiller has a lot to do with the career you’ll pick. I liked having all three because it didn’t limit my major choice. It would suck to pick Commerce in tenth grade because you like Management, but by the time you graduate you decide to be a doctor, and then none of your classes prepared you for that.

Side Perks

As you might have known already, it doesn’t snow in Panama, so we didn’t have snow days. (Temperature in Panama is pretty much the same all year, around 80°F to 100 °F). We did, however, have “there is no water in Panama City so stay home today” days, or the most recent, “it hasn’t rained in a few weeks so the lakes that provide electrical energy to the city are almost dry so don’t come to school the rest of the week” days. Perks of living in a developing nation.

Social Hour

Prom!

Prom!

My school (and practically all schools in Panama) didn’t have homecoming dances, formals, junior proms, or anything like that. We only have senior prom, and it’s a BIG deal. My prom was in the Trump Tower in Panama City. We had arranged for buses to pick us up at 4:00 am and take us to Nikos, a 24 hour restaurant, to drink “sancocho”, a typical soup that is said to wake up the dead. And by dead, I mean really drunk people (The legal drinking age in Panama is 18, and by prom almost everyone is 18, so schools serve alcohol for prom). After that, we went to Causeway, a boardwalk, to see the sunrise. I got home at 7:30 am after the BEST night EVER. Besides that, everything else is like prom night in the United States. We had corsages, and limos, and awesome promposals.

For the last day of classes for senior year, we have an awesome tradition that most Catholic schools in Panama participate in. We had a “caravana”, where everyone painted their cars with sayings like “Class of 2012”, or “This sh*t is finally over!”, or with the names of the people inside the car. Everyone sat on the windows, or poked their heads through the sunroof, and we rode through the city like that screaming. It was the most awesome thing in the world. We had to have two policemen escorting us, though.

Anything else you want to know about my education in Panama, or anything else in general about my awesome country you can let me know in the comments!



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the author

Clarissa Gallardo is a sophomore at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Originally from Panama City, Panama (only place in the world where you can see the sun rise in the Pacific and set on the Atlantic!), she is majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Mathematics and Ballet. A member of the Honors Program and dancer at heart, you can find her studying at the library, scrolling through her Tumblr feed , dancing, or reading. Clarissa has a really bad case of wanderlust and is obsessed with white chocolate mochas, The Big Bang Theory, and Doctor Reid from Criminal Minds. You can follow her on Twitter and on Tumblr.

14 Readers Commented

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  1. Cassie Scaman on June 14, 2013

    My high school also wore long dresses instead of caps and gowns but that’s because that’s what all the high schools did in 1817 when my high school was founded (yeah, that’s right) and we just never moved on when all the other schools did. Although every year they now let the seniors vote because a lot of students (myself included) disagree with it because of its sexist and queer-phobic practices (I went to a high school that was so open minded and liberal that I promise you I was NOT the only student that cared about this) because a) the white dresses and the red roses they give the girls symbolize virginity and chastity and b) students who are gender queer/fluid are forced to wear outfits that are traditionally assigned to a gender that they don’t identify with. While they’ve allowed female students to wear pant suits in the last few years, they are still required to be white along with all of the other female students and these students sometimes take issue with this.
    Sorry for going on about that.
    I thought this was very interesting, I always love hearing about the differences between our culture and other cultures because I think sometimes people (Americans especially) are very close-minded and uneducated when it comes to other cultures.

    • Clarissa Gallardo Author on June 14, 2013

      Most schools in Panama graduate with caps and gowns. I’m pretty sure my school is the only one that still does that (or ever has), but I think it’s because the school originally started as an all-boys school so they used suits and ties, and when they started accepting girls they added the dresses. However, I hadn’t considered your point of view before, and it’s a very valid argument! And I’m really glad you found it interesting :)!

  2. Andrés Batista on June 14, 2013

    Nice article! I have some questions.

  3. Heather on June 14, 2013

    This is so interesting! I knew about the non-rotational classes because my Spanish teacher has visited Panama before, but I hadn’t heard about Bachillers.

  4. Sofia Adames on June 17, 2013

    Your school must have been realy cool. Nice job with the article 🙂

  5. Aida Guhlin on September 20, 2013

    This is so cool! My dad is Panamanian, so I love hearing about what it’s like in Panama, especially now.

  6. Jeremy on January 2, 2014

    Like Aida my Dad is also Panamanian and he’s from Panama City. My dad moved to New York before high school so it was interesting to learn about high school there. I don’t meet a lot of Panamanians where I live too.

  7. Madeline on March 19, 2014

    Great article Clarissa. I went to school in Panama, and your article brought back great memories! ESPECIALLY Niko’s and the Causeway. I almost went to San Augustin, but my mom wanted me to learn English so I ended up going to el I.P.A.

  8. Kesia on May 14, 2014

    This was a really good article. I am going on exchange to Panama for a year, and I found this very helpful!

  9. Tara on June 13, 2014

    I also went to high school in Panama, however it was 1966 when I graduated and I went to Balboa and Christobal (graduated Balboa). So my experience was more like in the states.
    It was so interesting to hear about going to school in Panama.I want very much to go back and visit. Hopefully when I retire my husband and I will go and I can show him some of the places I remember – if they are still there after all these years. your article was wonderful, thank you for sharing.

  10. Maya on August 27, 2014

    Hi,

    I’m in my first year of college, I’ve started 2 trimesters already, 6 months ago in Bangkok, Thailand but since I was offered to move to Panama with my family, I am eager to leave (more like put on hold) things behind and start a new life over there because I’ve always wanted to learn authentic Spanish 🙂 anywho, enough with my background, my only concern is that when moving to Panama City, are there a lot of universities to choose from? Especially bilingual ones? Are the facilities there good? I read somewhere that there’s a lack of funding when it comes to education and such. Still in Bangkok, sorry if I’m completely clueless.

    Cheer.s

  11. Jerry Cook-Gallardo on January 18, 2015

    Hi Clarissa! Very introspective read. I was born and raised in Panama City until 5th grade, where we moved to Idaho as my father has family there. Aside from occasionally visiting for a few weeks, 2006 was pretty much the last time I lived there. My grandma visits every 2 years or so, and I was in Panama last winter for the first time in 8 years – a lot had changed, but I recalled some aspects from my childhood that were the same. I currently go to Carleton College, a small liberal arts school in Minnesota, but very renown for its academics. It’d be really interesting to hear more of your story if you could get back. Ciao!

  12. chris on January 3, 2017

    Do most students graduate 12th grade when 18 years old like the united states or is it closer to 19 years old in panama?

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