Behind Centre College’s unmatched study abroad program is the belief that education should be made personal, and that what is learned by traveling to new places has a profound impact on every student. While each adventure abroad is unforgettable in one way or another, a trip to Cuba made a particularly lasting impression on students who studied in Merida, Mexico, this fall.
Led by Associate Professor of Economics and 2014-15 Merida Program Director Marie Petkus (pictured right), 18 Centre students traveled to Cuba from Nov. 17-24, visiting Havana, Cienfuegos, Trinidad and more.
While general access to Cuba remains limited, in 2011 President Obama eased travel restrictions for certain groups, including higher education. Centre-in-Mexico’s resident coordinator Claudia Chapa also accompanied the group, and her familiarity with Cuba made her an invaluable asset. In addition, Genny Ballard, associate professor of Spanish and 2013-14 Merida director, took her students to Cuba last fall and spring, and was instrumental in helping to plan this most recent trip.
According to Petkus, the trip teemed with opportunities for experiential learning. In addition to conducting a comparative study of the political and economic history and present day accomplishments and challenges of Mexico and Cuba, the group visited the Ernesto Che Guevara Memorial outside Santa Clara and attended a lecture at the University of Havana.
“My favorite part of the trip was the lecture given by Dr. Jorge Mario Sánchez Egozcue, a senior professor at Centro de Estudios de la Economía Cubana at the University of Havana,” recalls Petkus. “Dr. Sanchez gave an overview of U.S.-Cuba relations and outlined the different development strategies currently facing Cuba. He is a great speaker, the material was fascinating and it gave us the unique experience of attending a class at the University of Havana.”
Petkus notes that the time students spent with local Cubans was potentially even more instructive.
“All of us stayed in casas particulares, which are rooms rented out of private homes,” she explains. “Cubans are gracious and generous people, with a strong sense of community, and they extended their hospitality to us the minute we arrived. My conversations with our host family in Trinidad, and the connections we made, will stay with me forever.”
For Megan Holderman ’16, living in homestays provided her with a deeper sense of Cuban culture, enriching her trip from start to finish.
“Since we stayed with Cuban families rather than in hotels, we had the chance to talk to and live with the people,” says Holderman. “This meant we had a more authentic experience instead of just a tourist experience.”
Abby Smith ’16 says she is grateful for the chance to stay with families and learn about their lives in such an immediate way.
“I really am glad I got to learn more about the life of the average Cuban, because it really allowed the trip to become more personal to me,” she says.
Conversations with locals were also meaningful to Tamin Calloway ’16, who says hearing about life in Cuba directly from residents made the country’s troubled history and current circumstances much more real to him.
“When we got the opportunity to talk to the people, we learned that life is not easy for them, and there are things that could definitely be better for them in all aspects, from jobs to personal freedoms,” he says. “It was definitely eye opening.”
“Growing up, we have always heard about the relations between the United States and Cuba from the U.S. point of view,” adds Wes McCrary ’15. “Seeing Cuba’s side of the story was a rare and fascinating opportunity.”
In addition to inspiring a deeper understanding of the country, Petkus hoped to instill in her students the need to keep broadening their horizons.
“After two and a half months in Merida, the students are now very comfortable with that part of Mexico. Cuba allowed us to push our comfort levels and explore another unknown place and culture,” she says.
Moreover, as is typical of Centre students who study abroad in any corner of the globe, these students recognized that their experiences in both Cuba and Mexico affected them personally.
“This journey has taught me to be overly flexible and to expect the unexpected,” says Taylor Harrison ’16. “I have faced multiple challenges, I got to know parts of the world I didn’t know existed and I am even more amazed at the world around me.”
“I feel like my experiences abroad have matured me as a person,” adds T.J. Vance ’15. “They have taught me to get out of my comfort zone and become more open minded.”
The students also acknowledge that opportunities like this are unique to Centre and speak to its impressive reputation for international education.
“This is what makes Centre’s study abroad program one of a kind,” agrees Calloway. “The College is interested in making their students global citizens, which to me means making all parts of the world reachable.”
by Caitlan Cole
Photo: This fall’s Centre-in-Mexico group on the steps of the University of Havana in Cuba’s capital.