Panama Alumna Awarded Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship

Panama_bridge-in-rural-homestaSIT Study Abroad congratulates Abigail Outterson, the newest recipient of the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship, which returns alumni of SIT’s undergraduate study abroad programs to their host countries to conduct human rights projects.

Outterson, of Somerville, MA, is a 2014 alumna of the SIT Study Abroad program Panama: Tropical Ecology, Marine Ecosystems, and Biodiversity Conservation. A senior at Skidmore College, she is majoring in anthropology with a minor in environmental studies.

Outterson plans to use her fellowship to create film documentation and interactive mapping to depict the daily struggles experienced on the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca (reservation). The reservation’s indigenous community will express in their own words the various experiences and challenges of getting their children to school. Chronic malnutrition, difficult terrain, isolation, cultural and language barriers, difficulty accessing healthcare, and a lack of strong connections to the government are some of the challenges that are preventing the Ngäbe-Buglé from an accessible education.

Few for Change, a nonprofit organization in Panama founded in 2009 by SIT Panama alumni, provides scholarships, educational resources, and community support for those who would not otherwise be able to continue their studies. “I believe education is a fundamental human right, as it can offer freedom and hope in daunting circumstances,” states Outterson. By partnering with Few for Change, Outterson will serve as an intermediary between the organization, the community it serves, and potential donors. Outterson plans to use video to communicate the Ngäbe-Buglé community’s immense need for scholarship support. “The media I create will viscerally translate a typical Ngäbe student’s experience for potential donors in resource-rich countries to understand.”

During her SIT Study Abroad experience in Panama, Outterson accompanied her host family on a hike to the town center where the children’s school was located in the Naso territory. The struggles experienced on this commute—which included crossing a steep hill, fording a stream, and keeping balance along narrow trails that stay muddy from frequent rain—were deeply impactful because of the sheer strength and determination the family showed in order to get their children to school. “We were struggling so much and falling all over the trail. I was so impressed with the mom, just hopping around these rocks and fording a stream with a baby on her hip. They took this trip four times per day—it was absolutely remarkable. That was probably the most impactful part of the entire trip. It was so important to the experience—it provided so much more context for us.”

Ultimately, there will be an interactive online GIS map of the comarca where a wider audience can hear testimonials from various families. The map will serve as a virtual tour that provides a comprehensive understanding of life on the comarca, especially through the lens of educational pursuits. Final products of this project will include interactive maps, videos, and photo-stories that will vastly enhance communication and outreach efforts and be relatable to viewers interested in advancing human rights for Panama’s indigenous communities. “This project will be successful if the videos I produce communicate the reality of life for members of the Ngäbe-Buglé comarca as accurately as possible,” states Outterson.

The family of Alice Rowan Swanson created the fellowship as a living tribute to Alice, an Amherst College alumna who died in a 2008 bicycle accident in Washington, DC. Rowan Swanson was inspired to work in international development and human rights following her SIT Study Abroad experience in Nicaragua in 2006.

The next round of Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship applications will be reviewed in October 2016. To learn more about the fellowship and eligibility or to download an application, visit the Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship web page.

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