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To Havana and back

Students reflect on Cuban experience

While the stragglers still on campus in late December were shoving their belongings into suitcases to catch early flights home, 11 other Brown students were packing their bags, too - to return to the United States after the inaugural semester of the University's new study abroad program in Cuba.

The students left Havana less than two weeks before the new year, returning to the United States days before Cuba commemorated the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's socialist revolution. In four months the students spent abroad, Cuba's seas swelled with the force of multiple hurricanes, and its people surged with hope inspired by President Barack Obama.

Departing from Miami at the end of August, the students had little idea of what to expect of a nation so shrouded in mystery: a patchwork of myths about Castro, communism and Cuban health care filtered through the American media.

"A lot of what we get here is so polarized," said Erika Nyborg-Burch '10, one of the 11 students.

"I knew very few people who had been to Cuba," she said. "The few pictures I had seen were basically just of Havana, some pictures of the old cars."

Stephan Meylan '10 agreed, despite having travelled previously in the Caribbean. "There's this big dark hole in the center of the Caribbean," he said. "I knew nothing about it, and going there was the only way to remedy the situation."

The window into Cuba afforded by Brown's new program is an opportunity that few American college students have. There are only a handful of U.S. study abroad programs in Cuba, said Kendall Brostuen, director of the office of international programs.

"It's not something that you can get from watching documentaries. You need to actually be there," Brostuen said. "They're seeing a country at a pivotal time in its history."

Hope, and storms

The program participants were not in the United States during one of the semester's most momentous events: the election of Barack Obama. Many of the students voted in the election at the U.S. Interests Section, an office which represents the American government and its citizens in Cuba, Nyborg-Burch said.

But being in Cuba during Obama's election gave the students a different lens on its significance.

"In Cuba, there were a lot of expectations about Cuba and the future of the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.," said Adrian Lopez-Denis, the program's director and a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of History.

There's "a huge amount of hope down there," Meylan said, "about the change he could represent for Cuba and for the U.S."

Meylan said Cubans perceived Obama as a representative of the American people rather than part of the U.S. government. Meylan said the prevailing opinion he encountered was, "Obama is the American people, and he's going to fix Cuba, as soon as he fixes the American economy."

There was "a huge amount of general social empathy between the Cuban people and us," Meylan said of the group.

Meylan recounted his conversations with Cubans. "Your people, my people, we're the same people," he recalled thinking. "Just because our governments don't agree doesn't mean that we're at odds."

"In the case of Cuba in particular, it was significant on many, many levels," Lopez-Denis, who is Cuban, said. "The significance of race in Cuba today is huge."

Lopez-Denis said the Afro-Cuban population has felt empowered by Obama's victory.

"They see kind of an opportunity for their own aspirations to be heard and to be part of the political discourse in Cuba," he said.

Even as the program's participants witnessed Cubans' hopes for a shift in relations with the United States, they confronted the challenges of studying and living abroad.

During Hurricane Ike, the students were evacuated to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a stormy start that suspended classes for the first week.

While the students remained safe, the destructive force of the hurricane was apparent. They heard about other provinces where people lost their homes, Courtney Smith '10 said. "It really affected the country's economy and food production," she added.

Meylan said the students' safety was a priority to Cubans. If anything had happened to the American students, he said, Cubans could have been considered responsible.

"We're at the National Hotel of Cuba," Meylan said. "Nobody else in the city has power. As tourists, why are we treated in such a way?"

In addition to the dynamics of power between foreign tourists and local Cubans, the students encountered other incidents that challenged their own beliefs and expectations.

"You have this idea that the revolution addressed issues like sexism, racism," Smith said. But the "shortcomings of the revolution," she said, became immediately apparent after their arrival.

Meylan said he felt very visible in Havana because of his ethnicity. "Because I'm white, blond and clear-eyed, people would send me to the front of lines, which I didn't understand," Meylan said. "I was very uncomfortable."

Living and learning

As the students adjusted to their new environment, they found shelter, as well as isolation, from their surroundings in the residence that they shared. "We were essentially an American enclave on top of an apartment building," Meylan said.

Meylan and Smith said the close-knit community that resulted from living together provided a network of support that helped them adjust to all that they saw and experienced. Smith said she appreciated "being able to debrief" about their experiences.

But Meylan pointed out that the immersion afforded by a homestay would have allowed him to progress further in his Spanish skills. "I'll have to say that my Spanish didn't improve as much as it could have," he said.

Though Meylan said "standard Cuban living conditions" could have been a "disconcerting" experience for his fellow students, Nyborg-Burch said she enjoyed the half-week she spent living with a family in San Cristobal, a small town in the province Pinar del Rio.

"I had worked on some organic farms this past summer, and I was interested in learning about Cuban agriculture," Nyborg-Burch said. The program's on-site director, Lopez-Denis, connected her to a family he knew.

"I got to meet most of the people who lived in the village," Nyborg-Burch said. "I got to help them farm. We planted tomatoes, and every morning I had fresh cow milk."

"They were incredibly gracious and welcoming," she added. "It's a different dynamic meeting someone for coffee or meeting someone in a class than living in a house ... and trying to fit yourself into their schedule and their way of life," she said.

"The things that you can learn from the life of a family are really hard to teach," Lopez-Denis said.

But he said the constraints of partnering with Casa de las Americas, the research institution where the program participants studied, would not allow the students to spend the entire duration of their trip living in Cuban homes. He called the shared residence a "safe haven" that helped the students cope with the intensity of Cuban life.

Lopez-Denis said he and the OIP are considering arranging short home-stays like Nyborg-Burch's, but added that nothing is definite.

"This is an evolving situation where basically we learn from the experiences," Lopez-Denis said.

The limitations on the participants' immersion in Cuban life extended to their academic lives as well. They took four pre-designated classes at Casa de las Americas, rather than at the University of Havana.

"We were led to believe at the beginning that we'd have a full complement of Cuban students with us in every class," Meylan said. But, Nyborg-Burch added, the Cubans in their classes were mostly older and often could not attend class because of their jobs.

It felt like "the classes were really for us, the American students, and they were really just sitting in," she said.

Nyborg-Burch said the Brown students initially were not integrated into the "student culture" because they were not studying at the University of Havana. "It was a longer adjustment," she said.

Lopez-Denis hopes to address this concern next fall by creating a "hybrid" structure in which students will take courses at Casa de las Americas and be able to sit in on classes at the University of


Lopez-Denis emphasized the importance of being able to meet Cubans of their age who shared their academic priorities "in a safe space." But, he said, "this is very preliminary."

'A complicated place'

For the 11 students, readjusting to the United States and Brown has been a simultaneously overwhelming and relieving process, whether braving Providence's cold and icy weather, engaging the social atmosphere of a campus with thousands of students or having the luxury of choosing from among the ample offerings of the Blue Room and Thayer Street.

"It's exciting, but it's also kind of intimidating at times," Nyborg-Burch said.

But through the first handful of weeks back on campus, the program's participants have continued to take advantage of the bonds they have built with each other. "It's kind of nice to have people who are coming back from the same place that you're coming back from," Nyborg-Burch said.

Meylan said that before he left for Cuba, some people he told about his study abroad program refused to believe him.

"They would tell me that I was not going to Cuba because that was illegal," Meylan said. "That just pointed to the lack of knowledge and understanding about the actual Cuban-American relationship."

Lopez-Denis said he hoped the study abroad experience had contributed in some small way to improving the relationship between the United States and Cuba. "Cuba's a complicated place (and) hard to explain," he said. "I'd rather show it to people."


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