University Students Take Initiative

Caption:University of Panama students practice taking their English exams online. 

Promoting and advocating for greater student agency is a priority objective for Fundacion Academia Forum. Our staff and volunteers engage with students, in person, at school, and through online communications, encouraging them to use their voice, request resources, and ask questions. 

This school year several University of Panama students inquired about program offerings at the Community Center in El Caimito.  Eager to successfully complete their university studies, their inquiries focused on receiving support to help review and reinforce their English language learning skills. 

Several students also approached staff members asking for help preparing for University entrance exams and assistance registering for online admissions. 

Passing the English proficiency exam is a graduation requirement for all university students. Noting the growing group of interested students, Profesora Elvia Martinez collaborated with Program Officer Berta Rivera to organize the first group to attend a special workshop dedicated to helping prepare for this important exam. A schedule was created and the participants began attending the sessions every Saturday starting at eight in the morning and finishing at twelve o’clock noon. 

Berta, who has led several English Language Learning workshops at the Community Center, created the sessions using the twenty-two topics laid out in the study guide for the exam.  As she explains, the topics cover essential grammar, from simple subjects to more complex ones. For example the use of adverbs, adjectives,  and the verb to be. 

One of the challenges Berta faced preparing the review materials was that some participants had already finished their English classes in their first semester and did not recall much of what they had learned. Others were at the end of their studies needing to reinforce what they had recently learned. Still, many shared that they had forgotten a great deal of what they had learned and this meant starting from the beginning. Berta clarifies that this all depends on the career students choose to study. That is to say that many of the careers will only cover English once, while others who have opted for degrees in English engage with the subject more consistently throughout their university studies.

Aiming to reinforce skills and knowledge, Berta planned several activities to ensure dynamic sessions. This involved a lot of group work, with students going up to the whiteboard to answer questions, many practice quizzes, as well as practicing dialogue. As Berta recalls, the quizzes were especially helpful in determining the participants’ level of English. 

Perhaps the most important part of these sessions was  Berta’s initiative to have the students conduct an online practice test using forms on Google. “I had the idea of doing this so that the participants could have an experience like what they would face when they took the online exam at the university. In this way, they could gain confidence and reduce some of the tension and nervousness they felt about taking the exam. Practicing in an online format helped them feel better prepared for that important moment. A moment that makes many of them with limited access to computers, exceedingly tense and nervous.  After finishing the practice exam we debriefed to talk about what they had been able to do correctly, and then corrected the mistakes they had made so they could be aware of them for the exam. ” Correcting mistakes together, helps students gain further confidence, as they are able to see what went wrong and how it can be corrected, rather than the mystery of only knowing the result of the exam in terms of numbers of right and wrong answers. 

We have all been there. The knot forms in our stomach, we start to sweat, and our hands start to shake. Berta saw this firsthand during the sessions. “What happens is that many of them get nervous, and even though they are well practiced and know what to do, they are overwhelmed by the anxiety and are unable to think clearly and recall what they have learned. I think that instilling confidence before the exam is essential in providing them with a feeling of security. I have had many students come back after failing the exam and tell me that although they practiced and knew the material their nervousness and  the context of a timed exam, got the best of them.”

If it weren’t for this special support, these students would be trying their luck in hopes of passing the exam, says Berta. In fact, she relates, many of the participants signed up having already made a first attempt. The unfortunate reality is that many university students often have to repeat the exam, which also means paying the exam fee of twenty dollars again. As this is a requirement for graduation, many students often find themselves in difficult economic situations which only adds to the pressure they may feel.  

What most impressed Berta was the student’s commitment to learning. “We are always happy to see students who traveled from far away (Penonome, La Pintada, Nata, Ola) by bus and on foot to attend the sessions. What is more, once they arrived they really took advantage of the time they had. Putting forth their best effort completing assignments and actively participating.” Berta was also amazed when students who had arrived late or had missed a previous Saturday session would ask to stay and continue working, sometimes until three in the afternoon. 

She smiles recalling the many messages she received from participants after they completed and passed their exams. “It is especially gratifying to see their messages, to know they passed, and the gratitude they have for the support the Foundation has provided.” 

Fundacion Academia Forum has also helped students who aspire to attend the Universidad Technologica de Panama in Penonome, prepare for their entrance exams. For these sessions, several tutors work together to provide learning assistance in Spanish, Physics, Biology, Chemistry, and Spanish, as well as English. Encouraging active participation, and completing worksheets and practice assignments, students build their confidence and then sit for a practice exam at the end of the session. 

Berta’s advice for students thinking about exams is to further encourage agency. “Take the chance, be bold enough to ask questions, to ask for help. By asking questions and asking for help you can unlock your potential. It is okay to feel scared or apprehensive, it is something we all go through. It is also okay to ask for help. I am always happy to help students, but I am especially impressed by students who come in on their own and ask for help. We have even helped students with registering and applying for university. Sometimes all we need is a little help.” 

Word is spreading in the communities and on the university campuses in Cocle. There is help to be had, for those who are motivated and have the courage to seek it out. Fundacion Academia Forum remains ready to help beneficiaries, practice, reinforce learning, prepare for exams, and sign up for university admissions. There is already a growing list of new participants for the next university preparation courses. Fundacion Academia Forum is committed to cultivating student agency and providing the funding and resources to help these ambitious young people continue their learning.