Over the past fifty-plus years, Cuba has been largely off limits to Americans. But thanks to the recent initiatives of CUNY and Baruch College, a handful of fortunate students were able to take part in a study abroad program on the Caribbean island this past January.
“I think Americans in particular are fascinated by Cuba because it is the only country in the world they are legally not allowed to travel to, but also because Cuba’s reality is so starkly different from their own, despite being only 90 miles away,” says Professor Katrin Hansing, who helped spearhead the study abroad program.
As an anthropologist who has spent over 15 years conducting research on different aspects of Cuban society, Professor Hansing had long hoped to be able to take students to the island. She was finally able to do so last month, due to recent changes in the U.S. government’s travel regulations on Cuba. These changes allow university students enrolled in a formal course of study to now legally travel to the socialist country.
Once the new regulations were announced, Professor Hansing, with the support of Weissman School of Arts and Sciences Dean and Vice Provost for Global Strategies Jeffrey Peck, and Dr. Richard Mitten, Baruch’s Director of Study Abroad, began organizing a 3-credit course on Cuba’s contemporary arts and culture. The Ludwig Foundation, a non-governmental Cuban organization dedicated to fostering Cuban contemporary art and artists, provided both the space and logistical support for the course and its many cultural activities.
After several days of pre-departure lectures in New York, the students arrived in Havana shortly after the New Year. From the moment they landed they were confronted with Cuba’s complex and often-contradictory reality, much of which would become clearer over the succeeding weeks. To provide the students with a first-hand look into everyday Cuban life, housing was arranged in private homes with Cuban families, a few blocks from the Foundation.
The course was taught by Dr. Hansing; Helmo Hernandez, the director of the Ludwig Foundation; and other Cuban experts in artistic and cultural fields who spoke to topics including Cuban cinema, architecture, visual arts, dance, music, the art market, arts education, and politics of the arts. Other important issues covered included race and ethnicity, inequality, religion, youth cultures, the double economy, and migration.
Mornings were spent in traditional classroom lectures, while afternoons (as well as many evenings) were dedicated to cultural and artistic off-site visits and events. For example, a morning lecture on Cuban music was followed by an afternoon visit, performance, and conversation with members of a well-known Cuban jazz band. Another morning panel lecture on the Cuban art market with artists, gallery owners, and auctioneers was followed by a tour to a gallery, artists’ private studio spaces, and Havana’s artisanal market.
CUNY students at rehearsal of Cuban jazz band, Havana January 2012
During the trip, Tyler Joseph, a jazz student from Hunter College, said: “This trip has already gone beyond my expectations. Due to the short amount of time we have here our schedules are extremely busy and the lectures are very intense. However, I truly believe that we will come away from this experience with a greater understanding of life in Cuba as well as life outside of the United States. The material and questions posed to us not only deal with Cuba, but cause us to question our own realities as citizens of the United States and the duties we have as individuals at home and abroad.”
In addition, CUNY students were paired with young Cubans currently working at the Ludwig Foundation in order to foster a true people-to-people exchange. Afternoon and evening activities — and much of the students’ free time — was spent together, forming new friendships. As one of the students said, “Spending time and really getting to know Cubans my own age was the highlight of the trip for me. It made the entire experience so much more profound and real on a human level.”
Another student, Richard Minaya of Staten Island College, summarized his experience of the program as “unparalleled, one that everyone (particularly Americans) should feel honored to be able to do. Being there has problematized my perception, has questioned my reality, and has created a critical rethinking of Cuba and myself.”
Professor Hansing is also very pleased with the program. “This was a pilot program and so much could have gone wrong…but no, it was a real success on all levels: academic, social, cultural and human. Personally, I have to say that it was truly a joy to see the students explore and learn about this very different culture and reality and watch them develop and grow as human beings. This is why studying abroad is so important; it not only helps students broaden their horizons and sharpen their critical thinking skills but also opens their hearts to new peoples and places.”
Professor Hansing hopes to be able to continue taking students to Cuba during CUNY’s winter sessions and perhaps even extend the course to a full semester program in the future. For more information about the program please contact Professor Hansing: firstname.lastname@example.org or Dr. Richard Mitten, Director of Study Abroad: email@example.com