Students get rare opportunity to visit Cuba

With the control of Cuba falling into the hands of Fidel Castro in 1959, Americans no longer had easy accessibility to visit the island. But in May, a group of students were able to visit Cuba to see what a Latin American socialist country looks like as well as learn about environmental sociology. 

“It’s not something many Americans can experience. I really wanted the opportunity to say, ‘I studied abroad in Cuba,’” said sociology graduate student and Student Government Association President Stephanie Travis. 

cuba study abroad

Students who participated in the study abroad trip to Cuba pose as they explore
Cuban architecture and learn about Cuban society. This is a unique opportunity,
as Americans are not permitted to enter Cuba except through special programs
such as study abroad.  Courtesy of David Burley

As the borders of Cuba weaken allowing more Americans in, the economy is also changing which gave participants in the program a chance to see firsthand how Cuba currently exists. 

“There are tremendous changes occurring in Cuba right now because of the opening up of the economy,” said David Burley, professor of sociology. “Ten years from now, Cuba is likely to be much different, and for better or worse, may look much more like the U.S. or other Latin American countries.”

Due to trade and commerce regulations for cargo being imported into Cuba, many Cubans have had to learn to utilize ingenuity with limited resources and creative ways to recycle used products. 

“I really like green-initiative and things that try to promote an environment that doesn’t waste resources but instead utilizes resources in every way possible by recycling,” said Travis. “You will see them washing a zip lock bag and reusing that zip lock bag. Their ingenuity and innovation to use their thought process and critical thinking to create things out of nothing were amazing.”

Through the hardships endured, Cubans have created ways to enrich their daily lives in the aftermath of problems created from generations before them. Rivers that had been polluted for decades as well as having the government grant land to people in need and grow food which allowed places such as Havana to produce organic gardens. This provides food for those who live on the outskirts of Cuba.

“Sustainable agriculture became very important during the Soviet Union and relied upon them for the purchasing of chemical fertilized, herbicides and pesticides,” said Burley. “With the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba now has to figure out how to feed itself without a huge supply of these chemicals. Thus, sustainable, cooperatively owned and run urban and rural farms popped up all over the country.”

As students ended their time in Cuba, their former preconceptions were changed by the experience. 

“One thing is certain: all the students said that all of their preconceived notions of Cuba were erased,” said Burley. “They thought it would be an extremely poor country, and it would be unsafe. They found the population to be very friendly; [Cubans] like Americans, and [the students] felt very safe. While they saw a fair amount of poverty, they did not find much difference from the U.S.”

The opportunity to visit Cuba will be offered again next May.

“Our trip next May will be just as educational and fun,” said Burley. “We will add a service day where we spend the day working on a sustainable farm and art collective that educates youth in the arts and supports itself through its sustainable agriculture. This kind of trip is what university education is all about. You get enlightening knowledge about another people, culture and the unequivocal skills that this brings.”