Next week, Maria De Los Angeles Adames Rivera of Santiago, Veraguas, Panama, will be hooded as she receives her Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Design and Planning from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies. It’s a significant achievement, not only because, as Adames explained, master’s degrees are usually the highest achieved in developing countries, but also because of the determination and perseverance she demonstrated in her long journey to complete her Ph.D.

A Panamanian native, Adames earned her bachelor’s degrees in geography and history from the University of Panama and then received a Fulbright Scholarship to study at Michigan State University, where she earned a master’s in geography with an emphasis in economic and urban geography. She then received a Fulbright-Laspau scholarship in 2001 to pursue her doctorate at Virginia Tech.

Adames studied in Blacksburg from 2001 to 2004, and then returned to Panama, where she teaches urban geography and economical geography at the University of Panama.

After returning to Panama, Adames juggled making progress towards her Ph.D. with professional responsibilities including teaching a full course load, organizing conferences, and assisting students from other universities as they conducted research in Panama,  and personal responsibilities and challenges including raising two children, health problems, and the death of her father. But through it all, she continued along her path.

“There have been times I think I’m going to give up, because with the work and being a mother and a professional, trying to fit all of these things in hasn’t been easy,” Adames said. “I am from Santiago, from a working class family, and I am actually also the first one to have a Ph.D. from my family and my husband’s family, too. My father, who passed away a couple years ago, always mentioned that he was very proud of me,” Adames said.

Her mentor, Professor Emeritus of Geography Joseph Scarpaci, was her original advisor when she began her Ph.D. at Virginia Tech and continued to support and encourage her along the way.

“Professor Adames de Newbill has multi-tasked her way through the fieldwork process by caring for ill parents, assuming the position of  co-coordinating a project for several years in indigenous areas for the University of Panama, organizing national and  international conferences, and all the while being a wife and a mother of two high-school kids,” said Scarpaci. “Her tenacity has paid off. She becomes one of the few Panamanian women with a doctoral degree in the field of planning and is positioned to make significant contributions to rent-gap theory and the process of gentrification and revitalization in the global south.”

Adames has been involved in efforts to document the poverty among the indigenous people of Panama, which is a significant issue for the country. While Panama has demonstrated the highest economic growth in the hemisphere, more than a third of Panamanians live below the poverty line. Her dissertation explores the transformations of the San Felipe area of Panama, also known as Casco Viejo, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1997. The designation was beneficial because it created worldwide awareness of the area, generating tourism and attracting people to invest in the area. However, the result of the growing investment there is the displacement of the original population, particular those living in poverty.

“I’m working on studying the gentrification process, how it’s happening in this neighborhood and the effects that it has on the residents and also the people that have left,” Adames said. “In 1990 we had around 10,000 residents in San Felipe. Right now, we have less than 2,000 people living in the area, so it’s a really rapid depopulation that we’ve had. You go there and see that it’s a very livable area because you see a lot of foreigners and tourists, and they have a lot of bars and restaurants, but the original population is getting displaced.”

Now that she has completed her doctoral work, Adames will continue working at the University of Panama and writing articles about her work for magazines and journals. Her dissertation work can provide valuable insights for a country balancing a booming economy with issues of poverty. And her personal achievement will set an example for her children, her students, and others in Panama who may want to pursue higher education.

“Perseverance is very important. It’s something I hope to transmit to other generations,” Adames said. “Things get hard in life, and if you persevere you can accomplish what you want. The support of my family and people who care about me have been very important in finishing my degree.  It doesn’t matter how old you are. I am 53 years old. I may be close to retiring soon, but I think it’s important that when you start something you’re able to finish it.” 

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