Indiana State students navigate new waters on trip to Cuba

April 14, 2014

Once-in-a-lifetime. That's how Indiana State University students described their recent trip to Cuba.

It's an appropriate superlative, considering the United States' trade embargo against Cuba has existed since 1960, a year after Fidel Castro seized power. American tourism to the island country is forbidden, and travel is allowed under only a few specific exceptions, including academic study.

Indeed, it's likely the lure of forbidden fruit that piqued students' interest in the trip, said Michael Erisman, professor emeritus of political science; however, what these seven students saw, learned and discovered - about Cuba and themselves - will stay with them forever.

"We've kind of developed our own stereotypes about Cuba. Being there really broke down all those barriers for me," said junior Hanna Brant of Frankfurt. "I was focusing on women's issues and rights in Cuba. A lot of time when you hear about a developing country, you think women are treated poorly and there's no health care or it's very hard to get to, there's no education or it's a terrible education. Cuba really defies all those stereotypes that we put on developing countries."

"(The experience) really shows you what it means to be a global citizen - and not just a citizen of the United States - to acknowledge everyone's perspective and to take it for what it's worth," said senior Nathan Walker of Plainfield.

"Cuba is a really beautiful place with friendly people. Going into the trip, my prior knowledge had me a little nervous to interact with individuals, and I almost expected guards breathing down my neck the entire time. However, everything was relaxed, and the people were happy," said junior Katherine Runge of Brownstown.

In addition to Brant, Walker and Runge, political science students Madeline Nelson, Jerry Cooper, Shan Patel and Tatianna Wilkes also made the trip south.

The days started with a lecture at the University of Havana, and in the afternoon, students ventured out for hands-on experiences reflective of the morning lesson. For instance, if their classroom session was about Cuban history, they might visit a Museum of the Revolution that afternoon. A lesson about the economy might lead them to a farmers' cooperative or - the group's favorite - a tour of a tobacco farm where someone demonstrated how world-famous Cuban cigars are rolled.

"I think I had two cigars a day - at least. Some days, I had more," Walker said.

Evenings brought cultural experiences. Students tasted both traditional and nouveau Cuban cuisine and took in the local art scene. Artists across all cultures have a long history of challenging the establishment, and with the Cuban government scaling back patronage in recent years, the country's artists are beginning to express their grievances.

"(The artists) dress in funky ways, and they talk very freely. Their music is quite challenging at times, [addressing] things they don't like about contemporary Cuba. It's really a happening scene," said political science professor Gaston Fernandez, who accompanied the students. "There clearly are limits, but part of what's interesting to observe is what those limits are. Through the music, through the art, through different forms of individual expression, one begins to see those boundaries and where those boundaries are being tested."

The students' perceptions of the world and U.S. relations were challenged by a different version of history, one colored by the Cubans' way of thinking and ideology.

"To hear Cubans' perspectives on Americans and American foreign policy was really awesome," Brant said. "It really gave me the ability to step out of how I normally view political relations and see it through a different perspective. I thought that was really important as a political science major."

In this real-life classroom, Fernandez was their guide to help them navigate through the contrasting perspectives.

"Dr. Fernandez did a phenomenal job coordinating this trip. We're so lucky to have him, and he truly gave us all the fullest experience we could have had while in Cuba," Brant said.

More than two weeks after the trip, which occurred over Spring Break, Walker was still processing his experiences abroad.

"Even now that I've been there, I have to continue to read. And it kind of takes me back. If you can't go to Cuba, read about Cuba," Walker said.

ISU's academic exchange agreement with the University of Havana - known as the "Harvard of Cuba" - will allow ISU faculty to undertake collaborative research in Cuba, as well as provide ISU departments the opportunity to host visiting University of Havana scholars. The deal was negotiated in record time; what has taken some universities three years to settle, took Erisman and Fernandez six months.

"One facilitating factor was we have hosted various UH faculty and other Cuban academics here at ISU over the years," said Erisman, who has spent his career studying Latin America and made more than 20 trips to Cuba. "I've been pushing the idea of an academic exchange for many years."

Fernandez, who is Cuban-American, said Indiana State students made quite an impression on their hosts. "The ISU students were inquisitive, they asked questions, they were probing, they were interested. That was good. They rose to the challenge," Fernandez said.

Other schools that were travelling through Cuba took notice, too. Students from American University and Pennsylvania were envious of the Sycamores' immersion experiences.

"It was pretty clear to those students that our program was way superior," Fernandez said. "We were experiencing so much more - on every level - in terms of culture, in terms of food, in terms of living among Cubans. We were living in a Cuban neighborhood. You've got the street vendors, the kids going to school, the people going to work, really an up-close and personal experience."

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http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-Sj6bXKZ/0/X3/i-Sj6bXKZ-X3.jpg From left, Indiana State students Madeline Nelson, Nate Walker, professor Gaston Fernandez, Shan Patel, Hanna Brant, Tatianna Wilkes, Jerry Cooper and Katherine Runge pose for a photograph in Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Runge/Indiana State University)

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-DD4CkQT/0/X3/i-DD4CkQT-X3.jpg A worker at a tobacco farm demonstrates how Cuban cigars are rolled for visiting students from Indiana State University. (Photo by Katherine Runge/Indiana State University)

http://www.smugmug.com/photos/i-KvzfF8W/0/X3/i-KvzfF8W-X3.jpg The steps leading to the University of Havana in Cuba are seen. (Photo by Katherine Runge/Indiana State University)

Contact: Gaston Fernandez, professor of political science at Indiana State University, 812-232-2517 or Gaston.Fernandez@indstate.edu

Writer: Libby Roerig, media relations assistant director, Office of Communications and Marketing, Indiana State University, 812-237-3790 or libby.roerig@indstate.edu