Students need to work before studying abroad

It is a warm night in downtown Havana, Cuba, and the Malecón sea road is buzzing. It’s January, yet it’s 70 degrees. I am at a hotel I could never afford, just above the water, looking at the view with my fellow students. We are surrounded by other tourists – the languages around us include German, French and what sounds like Italian and, of course, Spanish. We are almost ready to leave when we hear unmistakable, shrill American accents, not so different than our own.

“Hey! Will you take our picture?” A smiley girl in a sparkly tank top hands me a camera.

I say “Sure”, and she gathers her friends around her like accessories to her outfit. She grins wide on three. She tells me they are here studying too, just like us. She’s from Illinois. Her friends are from across the States – they list their home states for me in a rush.

We ask them what school they are from, assuming that, like us, they came with their university. “We’re all from different schools. It’s a private programme,” the girl explains.

My friend asks her if they read about the country before leaving or did any sort of preparation. She looks at us quizzically and says, “No, not at all”. She didn’t even know, before arriving, about Cuba’s infamous dual currency system and still struggles to understand it after almost three weeks in Havana. I give the girl back her camera and our evening continues, but I find myself thinking back to this moment for the rest of our trip.

Intensive study

I travelled to Cuba for 10 days with my college, the University of Puget Sound, after almost three months of intensive study on Cuban politics, economics and culture. While in Cuba, every day I found myself reflecting on what I had learned.

One of the first things to strike me on our arrival was the unique architecture. Havana is a strange smorgasbord of Soviet architecture rubbed up against once-grand colonial crumbling stone. To the average tourist it might simply appear to be a few ugly buildings marring an otherwise charming view. To me it seemed a metaphor for the Cuban reality I had read about in class –the past and the present rubbing shoulders, jostling for attention.

I noted how capitalism was literally hiding in the corners in Havana, blossoming in holes and hollows, the spaces left behind by socialism. I saw tiny stands selling vegetables and cellphones in the squeezed alleys between buildings, fighting for room.

The restaurant we ate at that first night was one of the best in the city. It was incredibly small and cramped, stuck in the top floor of an abandoned house. Private restaurants are forbidden to have large numbers of guests, we learned, so visitors are forced to take their business to the state-run restaurants.

Our hotel, too, evoked socialism. The Hotel Alejandra had historically been a sanatorium where those with HIV and AIDS were “treated” – mostly, kept away from the rest of Cuban society. The isolation was supposedly for reasons of hygiene, but it was also related to the extreme homophobia that dominated Fidel Castro’s regime in the 70s and early 80s.

I had read a 350-page book on the history of sexuality in Cuba for a project in class so this fascinated me: there was a reason the place felt a bit like a hospital. I was grateful to my professors, because walking through the hotel felt at times like stepping into that book.

One day we visited the ISA, the Instituto Superior de Arte or the National Art Schools of Cuba. The ISA was built on the site of a golf course, a direct message to Cuba’s elite that in socialist Cuba wealth would be shared.

What is disturbing about the ISA is that it is unfinished. The government allowed ostentatious plans for a beautiful, modern school in the 1960s, at the height of socialist optimism in the country, but then the money ran out – and with it, the dreams of the ISA architects.

Revolutionary dreams

As we walked through the half-completed buildings with no roofs, I felt as though I were wandering through the fallen dreams of the early revolution, witnessing the way socialism frayed at the edges.

Our feet echoed in the hallways and I thought back to the long-ago afternoon when Julia, a visiting Cuban professor who was now our guide, had told us about her love for the school and her frustration at its limitations. Julia placed her arm around my shoulders and pointed to a small blue door to my left.

“In there, the only internet access in the whole school. You remember we talked about how the students struggle to complete assignments without the internet?” I nodded, marveling at a university with Wi-Fi in only one room. Unbidden, the image of the other Americans we had met a few nights before came to mind.

I wondered then, and still do: Is it possible to understand a place so radically different from your own – a place where the state owns the newspapers and the doctors don’t make enough money to buy groceries – without reading up? I do not think so. In fact, I think it would be a discourtesy to the people you visit, and a disservice to yourself, to enter their homes without knowledge of their country’s complexities.

Study abroad trips are not just about having fun – and I like to think that I and my fellow students know that – and want that. They are about respectful cultural exchange and communication and, of course, about education.

This is my plea to professors everywhere: make us work for our trips abroad; arm us with knowledge. Before we take that irreversible step overseas, set aside a semester or a few weeks for learning – hard, intensive learning – so we can later leave our host country with even more. Despite what we may say, or you may think, college students do not want it easy when we study abroad. We want it demanding. We want it thorough. We want it real.

Casey O'Brien is a junior at national liberal arts college University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Washington State, US. Originally from California, she serves as news editor in chief at the college newspaper, The Trail. She is majoring in sociology and anthropology, with a global development emphasis, and minoring in Latin American studies.