Cuba as seen through Union students' eyes

Publication Date
Group shot of students in Cuba

Chase Finkel ’16 was impressed by the free health care, and the lack of crime and drugs. Dima Yankova ’16 noted the high rates of literacy and socially progressive

programs, such as a government-sponsored LGBTA center. And Hector Tejeda ’16 and Gina Valentine ’16 were struck by the cultural literacy in Cuba.

“Cubans are one of the most talented people in the world. They value the arts, dance, music, jazz and playing instruments from birth,” Tejeda said.

“It is impressive that such a small country contributes a disproportional amount to art, literature and music,” Valentine added.

These four students and 17 others had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Union College Cuba mini-term, led by Teresa Meade, the Florence B. Sherwood Professor of History and Culture, over winter break.

In the first year after the U.S. eased travel restrictions and bureaucratic barriers to studying and traveling in the Caribbean island nation, they explored its history, politics and culture through a series of lectures and conversations with prominent scholars, writers, artists, musicians and government representatives.

The Union community is invited to a poster and slide presentation of their experiences in the Nott Memorial Tuesday, Jan. 26, during Common Hour.

Joining them will be students and faculty from the Community Service mini-term. Sociology Senior Lecturer Janet Grigsby and 14 students spent time in New Orleans and the Louisiana Gulf Coast, helping rebuild communities destroyed by a series of major hurricanes and the Gulf Oil disaster. Among other projects, they worked on wetlands restoration with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program in Dulac, La.

This is the 11th straight year a Union contingent has worked on hurricane disaster relief in the Cajun landscape. Read details on the Union for Louisiana blog.

As the newest mini-term destination, Cuba gave students an historic opportunity to interact with a rich culture that has been cut off from the world for half a century.

“Our very diverse group of students represented different parts of the campus community,” noted Meade. “For instance, international students Dima (from Bulgaria) and Lolu (Omololu Adeniran ’16 from Nigeria) come from backgrounds where the Cuban Revolution was looked at very favorably. Chase, on the other hand, is from Miami and hadn’t heard a lot of good things about Cuba. He found his impressions changed.”

Remarking on the transitional status of the country, Finkel said, “For a long time, the revolutionary generation held strong to communist ideals, but in talking to kids from our generation, they very much want to enter the global community and become connected with the world.”

What didn’t he know before he left? “With all the disdain heaped on socialism and the Castro brothers, in Cuba every citizen is literate, has free healthcare and has a guaranteed meal.”

Yankova found it eye-opening to witness how “Cubans live in two parallel but increasingly more divided worlds, one made for the locals and one made for the outsiders who come to Cuba as visitors.”

Others who took part on the mini-term included Mary Cella ‘’16, Christopher Graff ’16, Hannah Hage ’16, Spencer Kahler ’17, Caelin Kaplan ’16, Navid (Kian) Nowrouzi ’16, Brendan O’Connor ’17, Melissa Rodriguez’16, Nurisha Rodriguez ‘’16, Yareli Rodriguez ’16, Madison Shapiro ’17, Brian Teitelbaum ’17, Tyler Valenti ’16, Quisqueya Witbeck ’16, Anthony Wright ’17 and Drew Zangrillo ’17.

The term began in Havana, one of the oldest cities of the Spanish empire, before moving to Santa Clara and Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro’s revolution was launched.

The group delivered sports equipment, gathered from students on campus and from the Athletic Department, to a community in Havana and brought school supplies to a fourth grade class in Santiago de Cuba.

They also discussed issues of race and gender equality with resident experts; toured a cigar factory, a recording studio and the fine arts museum; met with leaders of the nationwide literacy campaign; and visited UNESCO World Heritage sites.

“It was very interesting to be there at this time, when U.S.-Cuban relations are being restored,” said Meade, a Latin American history scholar who was on her third Cuban trip.

“I’m hopeful that Cuba can maintain the high level of social services that demarcate it from the rest of the Latin America while welcoming a new group of tourists from the U.S. We from the U.S. are now privy to the incredible friendliness and hospitality that Canadians, Europeans and many others have enjoyed for years.”