Two new study abroad trips now available for Auburn students to experience Cuba

Published: June 16, 2016
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With diplomatic relations restored between the United States and Cuba, Auburn University students recently traveled to the island nation as part of two new study abroad options.

Eleven students from Auburn’s Honors College, along with Professor Tiffany Sippial from the College of Liberal Arts, were the first to participate in the 14-day Honors College Study and Travel course to Cuba in May.

Sixteen students, representing a number of colleges on campus, also traveled to Cuba in May for a 12-day “coast-to-coast exploration of food, farming and tourism,” the result of a new partnership between the College of Agriculture and the College of Human Sciences.

Lessons in Cuban history and culture

Prior to travel, students spent the spring semester researching topics specific to Cuban culture such as gender, film and literature, religion, sustainability, food, dance and music, energy, medicine and transitioning foreign relations.

“Honors College Study and Travel courses are more than just a week abroad, they are holistic experiences where students immerse themselves in the history and culture of the area prior to traveling,” said Melissa Baumann, assistant provost for Undergraduate Studies and director of the Honors College. “We are thrilled these students had the opportunity to travel to a location that has been cut off from the American traveler’s wish list for so many years.”

The group visited the historic areas of Havana, Santa Clara, Cienfuegos, Trinidad, Jovellanos and the Pinar del Rio province and had the opportunity to visit many cultural sites such as Old Havana, Playa Giron (the Bay of Pigs), the Che Monument and Mausoleum, Hotel Nacional and many sites related to famed American novelist Ernest Hemingway.

Residing with local families during the trip, the group learned to cook traditional meals, took salsa lessons, caught a game of baseball and enjoyed the Cuban nightlife, along with lots of time outdoors in the Cienega de Zapata Biosphere Reserve, Escambray Mountains, El Torre, Rio San Juan and the Santa del Rosario mountains.

“Even after taking the class with Dr. Sippial during the spring semester, the reality of being in Cuba outweighed every expectation, disrupted all of my previous conceptions about Cuba as a country, and opened my eyes to more of what Cuba is and was outside of what we read as children in American history classes,” said Honors College student Hannah Skjellum.

Images and stories of each of the student’s travels are on the class blog at http://sippialcubatrip.wordpress.com.


Uncovering social issues in Cuba

Paula Hunker, director of strategy and policy for the Hunger Solutions Institute in the College of Human Sciences, and Professor Beth Guertal from the Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences in the College of Agriculture led the colleges’ first study abroad trip to Cuba.

The 12-day trip focused on food security and the political and social influences throughout the country. The cross-country expedition took students from Santiago de Cuba on the east across the length of the island to the Vinales Valley on the far west with numerous stops in between.

Along the way—in big cities like the capital, Havana, and smaller towns, Camaguey, Santa Clara and Valadaro—Hunker said students were able to visit large and small agro-ecological farms and many hospitality sites. They also learned about food security from the World Food Programme country director in Havana.

“Cuba was so heavily dependent on the former Soviet Union that when the Iron Curtain fell, Cubans fell into a food crisis. They had to figure out how to be self-sufficient, how to produce food without oil, tractors and chemicals,” said Hunker. “They created an ecological and sustainable model of agriculture—what they call agro-ecology—and produced high yields, even in urban farms.”

This method could be applied to help solve urban food insecurity in the U.S. where the USDA reports 14 percent of households are food insecure—meaning they lacked access to food for an active, healthy life.

Hunker, who worked with the World Food Programme before coming to Auburn, noted that with the government’s food rationing program, nobody in Cuba is left completely without food, a sharp contrast to the majority of countries in the developing world where 80 percent of the world has no safety net at all.

Students on the trip were tasked to consider what could be learned from Cuba to address food insecurity in the U.S., and what Cuba could learn about entrepreneurship and business as new opportunities arise. They also were left to think about tourism and the influences it could have on the country’s infrastructure and food supply now that the embargo has been lifted.

“Tourism is generally good for a country’s economy, but for Cuba, will it help or hurt them?” asked Hunker.

Students earned much more than three credit hours from the experience.

“We want students to learn and be changed by the trip,” said Hunker. “We had students from political science, poultry science, nutrition, hotel and restaurant management, global studies, and horticulture, to name a few, and everyone came away saying ‘this is so applicable to what I’m studying.’ It was truly transformational for them.”

Senior agronomy major Wykle Greene agreed, “I am so grateful that I was able to take part in this wonderful study abroad. I certainly hope to be back to Cuba very soon, not only for the beautiful scenery and culture, but hopefully to learn more about the country and perhaps have an impact on the future of Cuban agriculture.”

Guertal, who has traveled to Cuba with graduate students and is working with Cuban scientists on a number of joint research projects, said, “One of the great pleasures of this trip was the opportunity to travel with and get to know students and faculty from all over campus. We had students from a wide range of majors, and their life experiences and positive attitudes were so heartening and fun.”

For freshman Hannah Altemeier, one of the most profound moments for her happened on the island of Cayo Granma, where the global studies major noticed small caves she assumed were secret tunnels left over from the Spanish colonial era. Much to her surprise they were bomb shelters built in the 1980s to protect citizens from possible U.S. airstrikes.

“There I was, an American in Cuba, in the presence of some of the nicest people I had ever met, and they had lived through a period of fear because of my country,” she said. “This was the moment I realized the sheer weight of this ongoing conflict, and just how important our trip actually was, and is, to creating a peaceful future.”