Living in a one-room shack with a tin roof and rotting wooden floors in Panama didn’t provide Maybelline Smithee many opportunities. When necessities like food and proper housing weren’t always available, a luxury like a formal college education was a mere dream and meeting with the Panamanian ambassador to the U.S. would have been unthinkable. Life’s possibilities increased ten-fold when Smithee moved to the U.S. with her single mother at age six.
The move gave her a chance to receive a quality education that led to BYU and brought honor to her family name. A campus job working for Ted Lyons, Latin American studies coordinator at the Kennedy Center, resulted in a luncheon invitation following a lecture by His Excellency Fredrico Umburt, Panamanian ambassador to the United States. During their discussion over lunch, Smithee shared her plans to spend the summer in New York to compete with the Model UN program. She expressed her desire to go back to Panama and work with UNICEF.
Umburt offered her his personal card. When she e-mailed him the details regarding her goals in Panama, Umburt proved to be a vital link. His reference bumped her up the list of qualified applicants, and six months later Smithee was a UNICEF intern in Panama City—the first return to her homeland in sixteen years. The anthropological and sociological internship focused on investment in terms of the real estate boom, but the experience was made unique working with her people. “It was an eye-opening experience, because it put a face to the people I learned about in the classroom,” she said. “The people made it real, and I saw how I could use my education to make a difference.” Smithee’s lunch connection with Umburt opened a door to opportunities to use her BYU education back home in Panama. More importantly, her opportunities helped her to recognize the capacity she had to be an agent for good in the world.