Student Profile: Freshman Kathryn Butera Studied Abroad in Panama, Noted Cultural, Gender Differences

Kathryn Butera hopes to return to Latin America to study.  Photo by Chelsea Sterling/Foghorn
Kathryn Butera hopes to return to Latin America to study. Photo by Chelsea Sterling/Foghorn

Living in a foreign country? Showering from a bucket? Eating cow tongue? None of these experiences have stopped freshman Kathryn Butera from enjoying her senior year of high school while studying abroad in Panama. This world traveler managed to put the culture shock aside and soak in the Panamanian way of life, developing a passion for Latin American culture that she has now brought to USF.

Butera is an International Studies and Latin American Studies major, a member of the Martín Baro Scholar Program, and a member of the humanities honors program. Originally she is from Eugene, Oregon, where she got involved in a study abroad program through American Field Services.

The move this year from Eugene to San Francisco was nothing compared to the move from Eugene to Panama last fall. Butera speaks almost entirely positively about her time in Changuinola (a city in Bocas Del Toro, a Panamanian province), but does admit to having her fair share of hardships.

Upon arriving in Panama, Butera quickly learned that her high school Spanish education had left her far from fluent. For the first several months she recounts having a hard time communicating with her host family and other locals, admitting that she would “agree to everything” she was asked, because often times she had no idea what people were saying. This trick worked relatively well, but led to some surprises.

Butera said, “One time I agreed to eat cow tongue without knowing it!” After the first few months, she picked up the language and now considers herself nearly fluent. The food was very different from American cuisine because, as a less developed country, Panama has fewer resources and less ability to support a large food industry. Butera, however, had very few complaints.

One of the biggest culture shocks for Butera was the lack of running water. Flooding in many regions of Panama disrupts the entire country’s water circulation and oftentimes no water would run to her host family’s house. “I would literally shower out of a bucket,” she said. Even if there was running water, she would have to go outside and use a faucet outside of the house to get it.

The program was not just about cultural immersion. Butera also went to school for the nine months she was out of the States at the Bilingual Institute. The school, however, was predominantly made up of Spanish speakers, most of which were from Europe.

Butera was also struck by the cultural norms about family and women’s roles in Latin America. “In Panama, family is everything,” Butera said. “Your parents’ word is the final word.” Butera speculates that the significance of family loyalty may be because Panama is a “less trusting environment.”

Although Butera appreciated the emphasis on family values, she had problems with the expectations her host family had of women. She describes Panamanian culture as much more sexist than American culture. For example, because she is female, she was often not allowed to go out at night with her friends and was expected to perform more household duties. Most nights she was required to be home by 5 PM, which she describes as a huge change from her 2 AM curfew back in Oregon.

By the end of the year, though, Butera was incredibly sad to leave the country. She said it was the, “best experience of my life” and that coming home was much harder than going there. Her time in Panama greatly influenced her choice in major at USF and she has grown increasingly more fascinated with Latin American culture. She hopes to study abroad again, possibly in Panama (where her boyfriend lives), but is open to almost any opportunity to travel to Latin America.

Butera encourages all students, regardless of their year or financial ability, to try to study abroad. She represents the great diversity and enthusiasm that manifests itself in much of the USF student body.

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