UT Haslam Students Dive into Panama’s Bustling Global Supply Chain Microcosm

Haslam students spent two weeks in Panama studying supply chain logistics, operations and tactics while gaining a deeper understanding of Panamanian culture and history.

April 22, 2024

Positioned between the Caribbean Sea and Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, Panama is a land bridge connecting North and South America, as well as a global hub for finance, trade, commerce and tourism. Panama enjoys one of the region’s fastest-growing economies, making it a major force in the overall Latin American economy. Given that the Panama Canal connects the Pacific and Atlantic flows of trade, the nation is an ideal environment to explore supply chain management.

Studying Abroad in Panama

Students in the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Haslam College of Business have the opportunity to enroll in SCM 413 (Logistics Operations) as a two-week study abroad experience in Panama where they gain firsthand exposure to supply chain activities. SCM 413 is offered by Haslam’s International Programs and Study Abroad office and is a deep dive into supply chain logistics, operations and tactics. The course enables students to examine and explore Panamanian frontline decision-making in transportation, warehousing, distribution center operations and human resource management, as well as international business and economic opportunities, all while gaining a deeper understanding of Panamanian culture and history.

Alex Rodrigues, senior lecturer of supply chain management and Gardner Logistics Fellow, led the 2024 Panamanian study abroad experience and those in 2018, ’19, and ’23. He says, “It’s not only a great opportunity for the students to be immersed in a Latin American culture, but also, it exposes them to global supply chain management operations.”

The students deliver team presentations at the end of the program, covering the impact of the Panama Canal on world trade and future trends connected with it. They also must demonstrate an understanding of how Latin American economic, social and cultural perspectives compare to North American or Western Europe perspectives. To facilitate these learning objectives, the students are immersed in multiple aspects of Panamanian business and culture.

Exploring the City and the Canal

Naturally, students explore Panama City and the Panama Canal during the study abroad trip. They take an excursion through Panama City, an urban center of almost two million people. According to graduating senior Ryan Dean, the students expected an underdeveloped country. While true of parts of the country, learning about modern-day Panama City was a revelation.

“I never knew there was so much infrastructure,” he says. “It was such a well-built-up city. I’m from Florida, so seeing a city the size of Miami with skyscrapers all over the place really blew my mind. The city is very first world. Globally, everyone interconnects there, and you hear all different languages.”

At the canal, considered one of the modern wonders of world for its engineering and construction, students observe the hydraulic locks in operation and see firsthand the size of the container ships and bulk-type vessels that pass through. Rodrigues says this brings home the reality of global business operations.

“That experience of being there, of live action, gives directly to the students that connection to world trade, which I consider very important for them,” he says.

Immersion in Latin American Business and Culture

Beyond these experiences, the students participate in lecture and discussion sessions, and they take study visits to government, business and cultural centers, including: Pro Panama, the government agency that deals with investments and economic development; the facilities of Maersk, a maritime trade giant, and those of Dicarina, a supply chain and logistics firm; a United Nations humanitarian distribution center; the Gamboa Resort in the Gamboa Rainforest Reserve, which includes a sloth sanctuary; Gatun Lake, the main freshwater source for the Panama Canal; and the Tusipono Embera, an indigenous tribe that dwells on the Chagres river in the tropical rainforest that covers about 40 percent of Panama’s territory, which gives students a sense of the Latin American duality between urbanization and native culture.

“At Pro Panama, students learn Panama’s development priorities and constraints,” Rodrigues explains. “The United Nations operations are important because they are designed for humanitarian type of responses, which have very different strategic goals compared to traditional business operations.”

He adds that Panama is famous for the Panama Canal, and that may give the impression of it being a transit center, but the program activities help show the diversity of Panamanian business, with distribution centers, warehouses and wholesale activities.

An Interconnected Economy and Environment

Haslam’s Panama study abroad experience also showcased the intimate connection between industry and the environment. The nation is suffering from a severe drought, and the Panama Canal’s lock operations depend on fresh water. According to Rodrigues, the environment is a significant concern and priority for Panama in part because of the canal’s dependence on fresh water.

“We had the unique opportunity to be on boats on Lake Gatun itself, and we saw how the lake is at a lower level,” he says. “There was this direct experience of our reliance, as human beings, on the environment.”

Those lower lake levels mean the number of vessels transiting the canal has been restricted and weight limits for the vessels have been imposed, and those they do transit are charged more for passage.

“I think my biggest learning experience was that El Niño is a very real issue, and that we’re not the only ones being affected,” Dean says. “Now, you’re cutting traffic in half through the Panama Canal, just to save water.”

One-of-a-Kind Experience with Haslam

Because of its place in global trade, Rodrigues calls the opportunity to study in Panama unique.

“It is difficult to replicate elsewhere and very much connected to the geographic location of Panama,” he says. “It’s connecting two oceans and two continents here in the Americas. It has a centralized trade flow position, connecting the supply of commodities and consumer goods located in Asia to markets here in America and to markets in Europe. The students are exposed to all this there.”

Calling the experience, “life-changing,” graduating senior Heather Rucker expressed her appreciation for those who made it possible.

“I was able to get out of my comfort zone and experience how different cultures live, which was amazing,” she says. “I have the utmost respect for the tour guide, professors and everyone involved in making this happen for us students.”


Scott McNutt, senior business writer/publicist, rmcnutt4@utk.edu