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Internship takes Spanish major to Panama’s rainforest

| Judy Berthiaume

Not everyone would consider an internship that has them sleeping in a snake lab to be a dream come true.

But that’s exactly how one UW-Eau Claire senior Spanish major describes her work with a biological research station in Central America.

Tessa Stransky, a Spanish major from Vadnais Heights, Minn., is in the midst of an eight-week internship at La MICA, a biological research station located within a threatened habitat area in Panama. Its mission is to conserve the local history, culture and environment, which includes many venomous snakes.

“It’s been a dream of mine to live in a rainforest in Central America,” says Stransky, who will graduate from UW-Eau Claire in December. “I’ve always been interested in animals, biology and the rainforest so this experience is making me realize that I can live my dream and it’s not hard to do.”

Already, Stransky says, she’s fallen in love with Panama and its people.

“I love Central America,” says Stansky. “It’s a breath of fresh air. People are generally very friendly and they decorate the outside of their houses in beautiful plants. Everything is painted bright and cheerful colors. The people here are very hardworking, and most live day-to-day.”

While many may envy Stransky’s stories of sleeping in the middle of the jungle in a hammock, waking up with the sun and going to sleep when the sun sets, and enjoying the Panamanian beauty and cuisine, the work she’s doing as part of her internship might give some of her fellow students pause.

“I have a lot of responsibilities; every day is different,” says Stransky, whose interest in Panama was piqued when the creator of La MICA visited UW-Eau Claire two years ago. “Some days I’m translating snake bite action plans into Spanish for the local community, other days I’m out preparing for the venomous snake workshops we do around Panama.”

The workshops are important because they promote awareness about venomous snakes, providing important information to people living in small and large villages throughout Panama, Stransky says. The goal, she says, is to try to decrease people’s fear of these snakes, and educate people about how to protect themselves from them.

Panama has the largest number of recorded snake bites per year in Central America, with about 2,800 bites annually, Stransky says. That compares to neighboring Costa Rica’s 600 recorded snake bites per year. So raising awareness and sharing information about the snakes is of great value, she says.

While her work with La MICA is interesting, Stransky’s also appreciating the day-to-day experiences and interactions she’s having in Panama that are helping her immerse herself into the local culture and better understand this part of the world.

The discoveries she’s making are big and small, but all are helping her feel a connection to Panama.

“There are so many medicinal plants that no one even knows the name of here, yet they work like magic,” says Stransky, who's living in El Cope, a small village of about 1,000 people. “There’s one plant that if you have an open wound and you crush it and rub it on the wound, it heals like the next day and stops the bleeding. It’s amazing! I’ve probably seen species of animals and plants that have never been documented or studied before.”

Panama, Stransky says, has been full of surprises.

For example, while she’s living in a rainforest, it only rains about every three days, even though it’s the wet season. And she can buy an egg, a slice of cheese, a carrot and a hot dog — an entire meal — all for less than a dollar.

“Another thing that surprised me is how every bug and animal is 10 times bigger here than it is in the Midwest,” says Stransky. “The grasshoppers are about the size of a dollar bill, toads are the size of your fist, and the Harpy Eagle — Panamanian’s national bird — is the size of a large toddler.”

A Spanish major and Latin American Studies minor, Stransky has previously honed her Spanish language skills while traveling in Costa Rica and Spain. But she also was surprised to find that many words that she learned in those countries have completely different meanings in Panama.

While she’s enjoying her time in Panama, there are challenges Stransky doesn’t have to face in the United States.

“We’re always either without Internet, water or electricity,” Stransky says. “We can never have all three. And when you have all three, you don’t know what to do with yourself.

“As Americans, we can be so impatient. When we’re without something, we complain, whereas in Panama, I had to get used to being without water for hours, electricity for longer than a day, and Internet half a week or longer.”

While she’s learned much about Panama during here weeks in Central America, Stransky says she learned even more about herself.

“Even though I’m about to graduate, I will always consider myself a student,” Stransky says. “Not one day goes by that I’m not learning, whether I’m in a classroom or not. I’m considering teaching English abroad, but I would also be happy to live somewhere in the United States. I’ve learned that I’m at home when I’m with myself, so wherever I am, I’ll be happy.”

She’s grateful that UW-Eau Claire has given her the opportunity to live her dream, and help her see her future more clearly.

“I am so happy to have found an internship that didn’t confine me to a cubicle or office, one where I actually have room to grow and develop as a human,”  Stansky says, who also is fulfilling her service-learning requirement through her work in Panama. “This experience reinforces the idea that most learning usually takes place outside a classroom or an office. In my case, it’s taking place — literally — in a rainforest.”