Students to explore Cuba with GW’s first program

When a group of students lands in Havana, Cuba this summer, they will be just 92 miles from Florida’s beaches.

But as they explore the tiny island nation and take in its Cold-War-era infrastructure, Spanish professor Maria de la Fuente said students will think they traveled across the globe.

De la Fuente and fellow Spanish professor Ariadna Pichs will lead the program just two years after the U.S. began allowing university students to visit the country that has spent decades under an oppressive Communist regime.

“You can take the students to China and they’ll have this huge shock. But for all the countries in the Americas, Cuba is the one that’s most foreign to them,” de la Fuente, director of GW’s Spanish language program, said. “That contrast and the experience in that contrast is going to change a lot of their views about a lot of things.”

Students have constantly asked to study in Cuba, partially because they were intrigued about the taboo country, de la Fuente said. For nearly 50 years, since the U.S. embargo blocked imports, exports and travel to the then-Soviet Union satellite, Cuba’s 11 million citizens have lived in a museum-like society.

President Barack Obama allowed university students to travel to Cuba starting in 2011, opening the doors for GW’s first undergraduate student to study there this spring.

Pichs, who lived in Cuba until she was 26 years old, said students will probably be shocked to see the Cuba she grew up in. Students will meet Cubans to learn about life under the U.S. embargo, in which the homogenizing effects of globalization are just beginning to show. They will also tour the home of lost generation writer Ernest Hemingway, the cathedral in the center of Havana and the Museo de la Revolución.

Students will also learn how many Cubans are trying to make waves, despite the harsh political system. She said the course will emphasize the nation’s progress in areas like health care, immigration and spirituality, which have remained largely unknown to the rest of the world.

“Nobody imagines that things like environmental initiatives can happen in a small island with a dictatorship, but it happens there,” Pichs said. “If I teach them from my point of view and then they get there and see documentaries and movies, they will understand life in Cuba.”

De la Fuente, who immigrated from Spain, said Americans receive very little information about Cuba, but when they do it is “really partial or it’s not really accurate in some aspects.”

Students will study at GW for five days before flying on June 29 to Havana, where they will also visit two farms – one growing organic fruits and the other tobacco – to speak with local farmers about harsh working conditions.

De la Fuente, whose grandmother was Cuban, said she has always been fascinated with Cuban culture and politics. She visited Cuba for the first time about a decade ago on a study abroad trip while working at Duke University. She said she’s dreamed of creating the trip ever since the State Department lifted the travel ban for students.

GW is not the first in the U.S. to offer study abroad options in Cuba since the national restrictions were lifted. American University has a semester-long program and a two-week long summer program to Cuba. And de la Fuente said many more schools are likely to begin building programs soon.

“A lot of universities now are taking students to Cuba. It’s going to grow exponentially,” she said.

The short-term study abroad trip is one of several new offerings this summer. The expansion falls in line with the University’s increasing focus on globalization, as outlined in the 10-year strategic plan draft released in October.

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