Lehman Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs Anny Morrobel-Sosa and Professor Teresita Levy, an associate professor of Latin American and Puerto Rican Studies,were part of a historic delegation that could have long-range ramifications for future higher education partnerships between U.S. colleges and Cuba. The possibility for future partnerships between Lehman and Cuban universities is something both Morrobel-Sosa and Levy believe that under the right circumstances will come to fruition in the near future. The two represented Lehman—one of 12 institutions that were part of the delegation—as part of the International Academics Partnership Program (IAPP) organized by the Institute of International Education (IIE) this past October. The pair travelled to Cuba this month for an education conference.
Morrobel-Sosa and Levy referred to their historic trip as transformational on both a personal and professional level. Along with the IIE delegation, they spent a week meeting with public dignitaries, educators, and students in Havana and several other cities around the country. The Obama administration’s restoration of diplomatic ties for the first time since 1961 has created a sense of exciting possibilities between the two nations, but educators are proceeding slowly according to Morrobel Sosa. She emphasized the importance of developing long-term and lasting relationships with Cuban officials. Even with improved relations, the longstanding U.S. trade embargo of Cuba is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon. “It’s like discovering a new world,” Morrobel-Sosa says about the trip this past October, which she calls “an inaugural presentation of academics” to Cuba. “The Cuban university leaders are eager to participate in the expansion of knowledge and the creation of new ideas.”
The educators returned to Cuba on February 15 for “Universidad 2016”, a five-day international higher education conference in Havana. Levy believes that the connections made in October must continue to be developed and that follow-up trips to Cuba will further strengthen and secure them “I think this trip to Cuba will be the perfect follow up to build upon the relationships that we created when we were last there,” says Levy. “I am hoping that not only will we solidify our relationships with the colleges and universities in Cuba, but that we will create new relationships with other institutions around the world.”
Morrobel-Sosa envisions the potential for Lehman and CUNY to develop short-term faculty and graduate students exchanges for several weeks at a time with Cuban universities, but “we would need to find funding to support this initiative.” She suggested that funding sources could include a diverse series of global agencies, offering the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF.) as possible benefactors.
The Provost suggests that any proposals for exchange would likely focus on themes that have social impact-such as sustainable agriculture and sustainable living in urban environments and solving global challenges like food and water production. She says one possible way for the college to achieve a successful partnership with Cuban higher education institutions would be to form a consortium including CUNY and other delegation partners. Morrobol-Sosa says that Lehman and other delegation institutions including Rutgers, Central Washington University and the University of Arizona, want to take advantage of “being first.” “The University of Arizona already has a foothold in Cuba,” she says about the college’s study abroad program in Spanish language immersion. “It’s possible that we can partner with them and have our faculty and students participate without having to create a whole new infrastructure.”
Professor Levy is interested in taking a leadership role in the school’s development of a Cuban partnership with Lehman and is optimistic that with thoughtful planning, cooperation and institutional support, an eight-week, six credit course could be developed at Lehman by the summer of 2017.
For Levy, the visit to Cuba was a return to the island after conducting graduate research as a student of the CUNY Graduate Center in 1999 and 2000. She recalls traveling during the economic crisis referred to as “the special period” when food and other rations were especially low. “They were digging up parking lots and making them into gardens and to see those lots now become productive farms is really fascinating,” she relates.
On a personal level, Morrobel-Sosa found the experience of traveling to Cuba transformational. As a native of the Dominican Republic, she was able to fluently communicate with the people she met and felt that the strong connection was at least in part fueled by a shared history. In addition to the kinship she felt with the people she met in Cuba, there was another personal connection she has to the small island nation. “I have a relative who is alive because she had surgery in Cuba,” she says. “She had a tumor behind her right ear and the family couldn’t afford the operation, so they flew to Cuba. I was gratified to see the training that Cuban doctors received, that saved the life of one of my relatives.” ‘
During the trip, Morrobel-Sosa and Levy visited six of the nation’s 44 schools with the IIE delegation, including the University de Ciencias Medicas de La Habana, its prestigious medical school, and the Instituto Superior de Arte, nation’s impressive art institute. As part of the itinerary, the academics also spent an evening at the home of the ambassador to the European Union and met with Cuban ambassadors from Belgium, Brazil, Norway and Canada.