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Study abroad experience in Panama gets well-connected boost

Among those was Ilya Espino de Marotta, the first woman executive vice president for engineering with the Panama Canal Authority and lead engineer for its multibillion-dollar canal expansion, the nation’s largest infrastructure project since the canal’s opening in 1914.

“I consider Ilya Espino de Marotta to be the reigning queen of engineering for the world,” Travis said. “Even Carolina, who arranged the lecture, couldn’t believe that Ilya would have the time to talk to 13 students when she’s in charge of all that she is.”

Daffan was amazed by Marotta. “I’ve always been interested in how the logistics of the Panama Canal work, but being able to go down there and see it in operation as well as learn the history about it, learn the expansion project ins and outs, was a huge deal for me. There was so much engineering that even went into the planning and the execution and in the daily operation.”

Cortizo also connected the students with her mother, Panama’s first lady, Yazmín Colón de Cortizo. She is extremely familiar with large-scale logistics management, as she was largely responsible for the country’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout in 2020 and 2021.

“The rollout was the first lady’s legacy and her passion project,” Travis said. “Carolina told us that even though she can hardly get 45 minutes of her mother’s time, the first lady would make time to talk about that with us.”

Before leaving for Panama, the students had studied vaccine distribution. Daffan said talking to the first lady was like “taking stuff from the class and seeing it happen in real life. It was the perfect connection for a visual learner to see how your project might function in the real world. You could see the real impact of systems engineering.”

That same day, the students were offered special access to the Presidential Palace, a privilege not normally given to tourists or residents.

The students’ six days in Panama also included a behind-the-scenes look at the Panama Canal, a warehouse in the Colon Free Trade Zone, and a logistics center. They also found time to explore Panamanian culture and history and had free time to enjoy the country’s beautiful beaches and jungles.

Inspiration for the future

One student who is neither an industrial and systems engineering nor a busines information technology student said the tours and lectures helped him see real world applications for his major.

“I realized that cybersecurity has relevance in big processes like the Panama Canal, vaccine logistics, warehousing, and so many more topics we explored,” senior Fadi Ghanem said. The experience was eye-opening, he said, and helped him envision a future international career.

Near the end of the week, the students finally got a chance to meet Cortizo.

“The students absolutely loved her. She is so personable and friendly and very much one of them,” Travis said. “I think it inspired confidence for them to see Carolina, who had been a student at Virginia Tech not very long ago and is having this absolutely stellar career.”

Inspiration is one of the core components Travis said she was hoping her students would gain from the program. “This isn’t a class plus a tourist opportunity,” she said. “No, people give access to student groups that is unbelievable. You can take all the classes in the world and you can go everywhere as a tourist, but you cannot replicate study abroad.”

Theresa Johansson, director of the , part of , said faculty members like Travis and alumni like Cortizo who see the value of such experiences are key to the success of study abroad at Virginia Tech.

“Their deep expertise and passion for their fields inspire students to explore academic and cultural landscapes with a fresh perspective. Faculty-led programs not only enhance learning but also foster meaningful connections across cultures. This combination of academic rigor and personal development, and the commitment to benefiting the communities that host our groups, is what makes the best of our study abroad offerings truly transformative for our students.”

Faculty members interested in planning, creating, and teaching on a study abroad program can contact the Global Education Office, which also has tools to help recruit students.

Students, meanwhile, can explore the hundreds of study abroad programs offered at Virginia Tech by searching the Global Education Office’s  or by contacting a .