Spring Break study trip nuances students’ views on Cuba

The International Studies Cuba study trip melds classroom learning with a unique spring break visit to the country, an experience that challenges students’ assumptions about Cuban history and culture. By: Kelsey Morales
The International Studies Cuba study trip melds classroom learning with a unique spring break visit to the country, an experience that challenges students’ assumptions about Cuban history and culture. By: Kelsey Morales
The International Studies Cuba study trip melds classroom learning with a unique spring break visit
to the country, an experience that challenges students’ assumptions about Cuban history and culture. By: Kelsey Morales

While seniors might use this time to work on their theses, the rest of us mostly use the generous two weeks to catch up on sleep, lament the very unspring-like weather and enjoy a break from academia.

However, for students participating in the International Studies department Cuba study trip, spring break will mean not that much sleep, but certainly nicer weather as well as the opportunity to experience the concepts they have been studying up close. Every year, students apply for registration into a course with a focus on a specific location. For seven-weeks, they study intensively about the country’s history and culture which culminates in a trip to their destination and a research paper whose topic they choose and explore on site.

Guillermo Valdez ’15, one of 34 students who will be embarking on the trip this year, said,“Cuba is just one of those countries that I always had an interest in, especially considering the history it has with the United States.”

Though the International Studies department has offered study trips such as this one since 1989, the destination has been Cuba for two consecutive years.

Associate Professor of History and Director of Latin American and Latino/a Studies Leslie Offutt said the decision is in part due to continued student interest.

“It’s unusual for the study trip to focus on the same location in successive years; one thing that I think makes our proposal for this year’s course attractive to the steering committee was that we could speak with some confidence of student interest (there was a lot of “buzz” from last year’s students) and we knew we could bring the trip in relatively close to the budget,” said Offutt in an emailed statement.

In the past, students have traveled to Russia, China, Zimbabwe, Indonesia, India, Brazil, the Lesser Antilles, Kenya and Chile, just to name a few. Cuba though, has proved to be a great fit both for students and finances.

Regulating travel costs have become a greater obstacle in recent years. She said, “The course/study trip operates within certain financial constraints–they are expected to cost no more than $3,200 per student, and as air fare in particular has climbed over the past several years, it’s become very expensive to bring in a trip within that limit. That’s one reason that Latin American courses/study trips have been more frequent.”

Despite the fact that these students will be heading to the same place, the current course has a different focus. Offutt said, “This year’s course differs from last in that we have a lessened focus on environmental concerns and a greater focus on the expressive arts. The emphasis this year is more on the creation of a revolutionary consciousness and identity—the course is titled ‘Cubanidad’—and less on political and economic transitions, although the latter obviously impact the nature of that sense of national ‘self.’”

Jay Reist ’15 said this focus on arts is what he is looking forward to the most. “Meeting Cuban artists and performers will definitely be the highlight of the trip for me. I’m excited to meet the people and really make a personal connection to what we’ve been reading about,” he said While Reist is anticipating a more aesthetic experience, Valdez is seeking to challenge his preconceived notions of Cuba.

“Being a leftist Vassar student, I guess I’ve had a somewhat romanticized vision of what Cuban socialism looks like. Now I have a more realistic perspective of the success and limitations of Cuban socialism…realistic in the sense that although the revolution has achieved some success, not all of its goals were met.” he said.

Offutt said this understanding of the Cuba’s nuances is something she hopes students take away from the trip.

“I wanted very much to have them see Cuba from the inside out, and to understand the degree to which it is so much different than what we see filtered through a South Florida lens. If you can break down that barrier, and if you have time to be in Cuba with some knowledge under your belt, you can understand that it’s much more than black and white,” she was quoted as saying in an article featured in the Oct. 2012 Vassar Alumnae/i Hub.

Lauren Stamm ’14, a student who went on the Cuba trip last year, said one thing that surprised her was Cuba’s relationship with the United States. “I was really surprised about all of the propaganda against the American embargo. Cubans really want the blockade to end and see it as the source of a lot of their domestic problems. Yet, Cuba has thrived in ways that access to American capital would prohibit. For example, the environment: because of the lack of production and industry, the environment hasn’t deteriorated the way it has in the US, or other more industrialized countries,“ she said.

Alexis Canney ‘14 too, said she found the pervasion of propaganda remarkable. She said, “The very first thing I was struck by was the lack of advertisements, and, in their places, propaganda, everywhere, constantly promoting Che and Castro and many more of Cuba’s heroes. I was also surprised and kind of enchanted by the fact that the old 50s cars (many that still looked new) really did exist,” she said.

Last year’s travelers suggested students keep a journal to write down all of these details. “My advice would be to keep a journal. Cuba is a really different place and there was a lot to process. Being able to write it down helped me understand Cuba and my experience there much more,” said Stamm.

For Offutt, seeing her students make connections which enriches her experience.

Offutt concluded, “The joy for me is the experiences in the field, watching our students coming alive as they translate what they’ve learned in the classroom to what they’re finding on the streets and in the various conferencias and meetings with specialists, and in what I’m able then to bring back to the Vassar classroom.”

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