Building bridges in Panama

Student gains international experience with U.S. Department of State


by Ciara Brennan ('17)

Lily Gates, a public policy and administration and philosophy double-major, spent her summer interning with the U.S. Department of State in the U.S. Embassy in Panama.

When Lily Gates landed in Panama for an internship with the U.S. Department of State, “I couldn't speak the language and I couldn't get through customs and I couldn't find the grocery store,” Lily said. “And then, after an entire summer of traveling on the weekends, picking up Spanish, gaining confidence and learning how to navigate, I just fell in love with it.”  

For 10 weeks the JMU senior, a public policy and administration and philosophy double-major, lived in Panama City, Panama and interned in the Public Affairs Section of the U.S. Embassy. Lily’s office, composed of three foreign service officers and around 10 Panamanian employees, worked directly with the people. “Our main goal was to [build] a really good bridge between the Panamanian and American cultures,” she said.  

They explored the question, “How can we tap into things that Panama cares about and show that we support it?" Lily arrived just as the office was beginning plans for a No Waste 5K to support the country’s initiatives to clean up its beaches and stimulate the tourism industry. “It was cool to be on a project from start to finish where we could show the public, ‘Hey, we care about this, too!’” said Lily, who served as a point-of-contact leading up to the event and even ran in the 5K, finishing in the top five for women.  

Lily Gates (far right) with her coworkers at the No Waste 5K in Panama City, Panama.

Another highlight of Lily's experience in Panama was traveling by bus and boat to a remote island in Bayano Lake, where her office delivered backpacks and school supplies to children in the community. "Our office did a lot of work promoting education and making sure kids have access to that," Lily said.  

She also had the rare opportunity to develop close relationships with foreign service officers who typically rotate to a new embassy every two years. "To have them take me under their wing and say, ‘Let me show you how this works,’ made the experience a lot more legitimate,” Lily said. “Now I have connections, so if I ever want to go into the foreign service, they're probably going to be the first ones I call.”  

When she returned home from Panama in August, Lily immediately scheduled her GRE test and began applying for graduate schools and fellowship opportunities. “I hit the ground running. I was sad that I wasn’t in Panama anymore and so I wanted to find a way to keep thinking about my future,” Lily said. "Now that I've fallen in love with [Central American] culture, I can't stop noticing it, and that's probably the craziest takeaway I have from the summer. How blinded I was to the strong Latino culture here in Harrisonburg."  

“I feel very fortunate because as a student it's pretty hard to get firsthand experience in government operations... And so to actually have experienced [working in an embassy] is very valuable,” Lily said. “This summer, I [realized] I could do this for the rest of my life, hands down.”  

Learn more about internship opportunities for JMU students here.

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Published: Sunday, November 17, 2019

Last Updated: Thursday, November 2, 2023

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