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Puertas Abiertas, Mentes Abiertas

An educational partnership between UA and Cuba allows undergraduates to expand and diversify their studies in a country they never dreamed they’d see.

By Richard LeComte

Studying for a semester in Cuba proved to be an eye-opening experience for a group of University of Alabama students. Although they came in with varied sets of expectations, they unanimously agree that they found the people of the island nation warm and welcoming.

“Cuba fascinated me because of its history,” says Kate Batson, a New College student with a Latin American studies concentration, who studied in Cuba. “I wanted to see the reality down there. I wanted to see it for myself rather than rely on what someone else wrote.”

So how did this one-of-a-kind opportunity come about? Batson and 10 other UA students spent the spring 2009 semester in Cuba, studying Spanish, Cuban culture and politics. They were the first students to participate in a UA-directed semester abroad program in Cuba, part of the University’s Cuba Initiative, spearheaded by the College of Arts and Sciences and designed to build educational partnerships with the University of Havana and its higher education counterparts.

While there, students studied Spanish, history, politics and literature, among other subjects. UA is geared up to run the program again in 2010 with a new cohort of students, says Dr. Michael Schnepf, professor of Spanish in UA's department of modern languages and classics, who accompanied the students and taught a course at the University of Havana.

The students who participated were expected to venture beyond the books and connect with locals. And to the students’ delight, they discovered that the Cubans were just as eager to meet them. “As soon as they find out you’re American, they tell you about their aunt living in Miami,” says Austin Shirey, an international business major who graduated in May. “They’re very, very open. If you meet somebody, in 20 minutes you’ve been invited to their house.”

Shirey got to know locals through the universal language of sports.

“About two weeks into the trip, we were watching some kids play basketball,” he says. “They could tell we were foreigners. When they found out where we were from, one of them invited us over. We met his family and found out one of them played baseball on the national team.”

“We made tons of friends,” Batson says. “I got to meet people at the university who were part of the philosophy department. A few members of the group and I would hang around and talk with them, then we’d usually go down to the café. During the weekends, we’d keep in contact and they’d take us to places where tourists don’t normally go.”

Both Batson and Shirey say they expected Cuba to look like a typical Caribbean nation, but their expectations were confounded as soon as they got there. Barely working cars preserved from the 1950s and crumbling buildings mark the streets of Havana, and living conditions are cramped, with entire families crammed into tiny apartments.

“You walk in, and you have a little sitting area, and right next to that you have a kitchen, and right off of that you have a bedroom, a bathroom and another bedroom, and that’s the apartment,” Batson says.

On Mondays and Wednesdays, the students rode a bus or took a taxi to the University of Havana, where they attended classes. The bus system presented a particular challenge, they say—buses broke down often and were extremely crowded. Personal space? Forget it.

“It got to the point that you wouldn’t have to hold on to anything when the bus stopped, because you would be surrounded by people,” Batson says. “You couldn’t move at all. And no one cared.”

Yet the buses proved to be a great way for the students to see Havana beyond the residential neighborhood where they were staying, particularly Havana’s old city and El Malecón seawall.

“I was very proud of the students,” Schnepf says. “They traveled all around Havana. They would get on those buses no matter how many people were on them, and they just went out and did things. They were constantly telling us about what they found—a new restaurant or a new person on the bus.”

Both Batson and Shirey see their Cuban experience as key to their futures. Shirey, who majored in international business, expects his experience to distinguish him from other job candidates. Batson is delighted that she got to see Cuba in this unusual time. “I wanted to experience the reality of Cuba,” she says. “I was able see Cuba before anything opened up, which is an experience I would not change for the world.”