Roger Thayer Stone Center For Latin American Studies

Tulane University

Tulane students get fully immersed in Cuban life through new Cuba semester abroad program

March 24th, 2011

Photo Courtesy of Professor Carolina Caballero

By Shearon Roberts

For Tulane junior Meghan Kelly, Cuba proved to be a place both at the cutting edge, and at the same time, one where she learned to appreciate lack. The pre-med St. Louis, Missouri native, who majors in Spanish and Linguistics, abandoned the luxuries of constant technological connections through cell phones and the Internet for four months as one of five students in the Fall 2010 class of Tulane’s new Cuba Semester abroad program.

Instead, she programmed herself to learn how to catch the ‘guagua’ or Cuban buses, walk with toilet paper in hand, keep up with her classes at the University of Havana, and tune out street hecklers, sometimes flattering, other times, lewd.

“I didn’t want your usual study abroad experience,” said Kelly who had been fascinated by Cubans, their history and music for some time. “Simply walking down the street as a woman from outside the country was a harrowing experience; I heard it all from compliments, to whistles from guards and police officers, to hissing and relatively crude comments from men on the street.”

Heckling aside, the future medical school applicant was pleasantly surprised to learn firsthand about the country’s strong health care system as she visited doctor’s clinics in Havana and volunteered at an assisted living home.

“To be exposed to a health care system so different from ours and leaning towards what may be in the cards for us was fascinating,” said Kelly, who also conducted research on U.S. organizations involved in medical donations to Cuba.

Kelly’s semester abroad took her out of the realm of being merely a tourist for four months, and it was exactly the experience Tulane Spanish and Portuguese professor Dr. Carolina Caballero was hoping students would have out of the new semester program.

“Cuba is on the brink of great changes and it is truly amazing being able to experience some of them first hand, but it is not an easy place to be a foreign student,” said Caballero, who coordinates the program and teaches a Cuba Society and Culture class on-site. “Because of the challenges of living in Cuba and the peculiar situations one constantly finds themselves in on the island, students learn as much about themselves as they do Cuba.”

The 2010 students were the second batch of Tulane students under the new Cuba semester program to spend their fall semester on the island where non-existent diplomatic ties between the U.S. and Cuba put up barriers for truly knowing the country and its people, Caballero said. Under President George W. Bush, academic trips to Cuba needed to be at least 10-weeks long and so Tulane’s summer programs were temporarily suspended in 2004. Now with the new fall semester program, which started up in 2009, Tulane students spend 14 to 18 hours of classes, trips and lectures from August to December.

The group of five students that made up the 2010 class picked classes of their choosing offered at the Universidad de la Habana’s Departments of Philosophy, History, and Arts and Letters. Some could also study Cuban film at the Fundación de Nuevo Cine Latinoamericano. Much like being at Tulane, they also conducted community service, volunteering at the Convento de Belén, a community project that serves elderly and young children of Habana Vieja. The students mixed class work with over-night trips to other parts of the island such as Cienfuegos, Trinidad; Matanzas, Varadero; and Santiago, Baracoa, and Camagüey.

“I try to guide them through this entire semester and support them as much as they need while allowing them their independence and space to explore the city and country on their own terms,” Caballero said of her role while with the students there.

The total immersion in the country allowed the 2010 students to improve their Spanish speaking ability significantly, Caballero said, but more importantly they learned to be accommodating, and patient in recognizing the privileges they have in the U.S. While the application process for the 2011 class closed in February, Caballero said the program takes care to interview the student applicants sufficiently, before selecting them, given the rigors of the program. Taking Cuban history and culture classes, or Spanish language classes beyond SPAN 3040 can also help future students in the semester abroad program become prepared for such an experience, Caballero added.

Although the five students in the 2010 class felt they were knowledgeable enough on Cuba from prior coursework, the moment they arrived in the country, they learned quickly to leave all their assumptions at the airport.
Kelly recalled, “Sometimes certain foods or products would exist, like coffee, beans, etc, and sometimes they wouldn’t. I’d liken the feeling to going to Starbucks and they tell you they don’t have coffee,” she said.
Now Kelly said she applies her academic and life lessons from Cuba in her courses this semester and in her everyday routines.

“I now delight in the idea of supermarkets and coffee shops to an unimagined degree: they always have food and coffee.” Kelly added. “I learned to live in the moment and really appreciate and take advantage of what I have here and now.”

Shearon Roberts is a Ph.D. candidate at the Stone Center.

Cuba + People
Guadalupe García
Assistant Professor - History