Study Abroad in Cuba
In 1492, Columbus mistook Cuba for Cipango (Japan). Over the course of the colonial era, Cuba became one of the main sites of desembarcation for Africans in the New World. From the formative first meeting of indigenous Americans, Europeans, imagined and real encounters with Asia, and its central place in African diasporic community, the history of Cuba has profoundly shaped our world today.
UVa is proud to offer a range of study abroad programs in Cuba, including semester-length options at La Universidad de la Habana, offered through Arcadia University, and a summer program focusing on Afro-Cuban religion in Santiago de Cuba. This new program is co-taught by professors Jalane Schmidt (Religious Studies) and Anne-Garland Mahler (SIP).
Before you apply to a program, you must meet with your advisor for the major or minor, and speak with an advisor from the Study Abroad Office. The advisor for all programs in Cuba is Martha Sadler.
Name & Graduation Year: Kylie Grow (CLAS 2017)
Hometown: Falls Church, VA
Major(s): Global Development Studies (GDS) & Spanish
Program Name & Session: Arcadia University's Havana program (Spring 2015)
1. Why did you want to study in Cuba?
I was interested in the ties between economic development and political economy, or forms of government. I wanted to have an extensive experience living in a communist country to draw my own conclusions about the state of human rights in a Marxist-Leninist political economy. It also helped that I am a Spanish major and Cuba is a Spanish-speaking country.
2. What was a typical day like?
Each day started with a lovely breakfast spread for Arcadia students in our house, and heading off to class at the University of Havana (around a 20 min walk away). By midday, I usually couldn't handle the heat anymore, and I would generally head back home after class and nap in our air conditioned room. (Arcadia's student housing in Havana is luxurious compared to the typical Cuban home, which made me cognitively uncomfortable at first, but it was really a blessing to have a relaxing space to return to after challenging days.) After a nap and a shower, we would usually head out to listen to live music and dance salsa in local clubs.
3. What classes did you take? Do we offer them at UVa?
I took three classes at the University of Havana (with Cuban students): Lexicology of Cuban Spanish, Political Economy II: The Construction of Socialism, and Cuban Cinema. Additionally, all Arcadia students are required to take a class off-campus on the History of US-Cuban Relations. All of the classes were taught in Spanish, and few of these subjects were offered at UVA until very recently. The exception is Professor Pellón's Cuban Cinema class, which I've heard is great.
4. How did it help with your coursework, research interests, or professional/academic goals?
My geographic region of focus in both GDS and Spanish is Latin America and the Caribbean, so being immersed in a Caribbean country for four months while learning about Cuban history, and the history of U.S. relations with the region has hugely influenced my perspective on international development. The 20th century Cuban Revolution has major implications for the political trajectories of countries throughout the Western Hemisphere (and beyond). In that way I have a very solid understanding of 20th century politics in my geographic area of interest, and how the United States developed the international perspectives and policies our country has today, which serves as important context for everything I've studied since.
5. What was the best thing about studying abroad in Cuba?
The best thing about studying in Cuba was probably being surprised by little things on a daily basis, events or customs that I couldn't have imagined would be so different from the US without studying in Cuba; from the way Cubans queue up when they are waiting for something, and the scarcity of simple items like yogurt in all grocery stores throughout the city on seemingly random weeks, to the fact that there are only two domestic beers in Cuba, a pilsner called Cristal and a lager called Bucanero, and they are both produced by a nationalized company.
6. What would you want other students to know?
Cuba is drastically different from the United States in many ways, but it is not an island "untouched", or stuck in time, so to speak. Havana is constantly in fluctuation, and Cuba has been involved in international trade since colonization. If you're interested in studying in Cuba, try to drop all expectations of a frozen, Cold War era country, and prepare yourself to be surprised in ways you didn't think possible.
During her semester-length study in Cuba, Kylie worked on an art project that was sponsored in part by a small travel grant from the Office of Study Abroad. She describes her work as such:
"Decadence is an essay of 16 silver gelatin photos that explores the status of social infrastructure on the urban streets of Cuba under a decades-old Marxist-Leninist regime. This series was shot during a crucial historical period in the Spring of 2015 as the United States and Cuban governments began talks to re-establish diplomatic relations for the first time in nearly 60 years. As the first glimpses of an aperture to Cuba emerged in the United States, the photographer noticed a renewed interest in the age-old Cold War debate of Capitalism versus Communism. One side of this debate generally criticizes U.S. foreign policy, and blames the United States' federal government for the poverty of the Cuban people. While in Cuba, she noticed the Cuban federal government making the same claims. And the other side of the argument? Many Americans and Cubans are hesitant to blame "El Bloqueo", a militaristic term used to describe what Americans understand to be the Embargo. At what point must the Cuban Socialist party take ownership of its own failures? In the complete essay, the photographer visually poses the question-- Who is to blame for the trash, animal remains, decaying buildings, and failed water deliveries that continue to plague Havana's neighborhoods in 2015? By posing this question, the artist hopes to inspire a more nuanced debate about the evils of Capitalism and Communism."
Here is a selection of Kylie's work: