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Dominican Students Among First in the US to Study Abroad In Cuba

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The Rio Toa and Havana might not be the typical classroom setting, but for 20 Dominican students, who spent three weeks this summer traveling throughout Cuba, it was.

On May 13, 2011, Christina Perez, Ph.D., director of the Women and Gender Studies program and an associate professor of Sociology, along with Dr. Janice Monti and Dr. Ric Calabrese took Dominican students on a brand-new study abroad program to Cuba. During this trip, students were enrolled in the course “Cuba: Culture, History and Politics” and were immersed in the rich culture of Cuba in order to learn from the inside, rather than from a biased perspective.

While in Cuba, students spent the first half of the trip at the University of Havana where they were taught by Cuban professors alongside native students and the second half of the trip was in the countryside of Cuba. The ultimate goal of the trip was to help students understand Cuba history and culture more accurately.

“There is a tremendous amount of disinformation and misconceptions surrounding Cuba,” Perez said. “This trip had one goal, to help students have a more accurate understanding of the country.”

Before leaving the United States, students participating in the program were required to attend three class sessions. During these sessions, students learned about the history and conflict between the United States and Cuba. Junior Vanessa Vanderzee was eager to go to Cuba for a chance to speak Spanish and learn about a new country.

“It’s crazy how close we are to Cuba but how little we actually know,” Vanderzee said. “I was hoping for all my expectations of Cuba to be challenged. I wanted to learn something that I couldn’t learn in the United States.”

Senior Portia Anderson didn’t know what to expect when she applied for the program; all she knew was that she wanted to go.

“I found out about the program in the spring of 2010,” Anderson said. “Dr. Perez had told me about it while we were on a service learning trip in El Salvador. I knew that if the trip ever happened, I was going.”

The program was long in the making before President Obama officially allowed for an educational exchange between the United States and Cuba. Following Obama’s inauguration and promises of change in U.S.-Cuban relations, Perez immediately started preparing the program.

“Dominican had been waiting since 2004 for a study abroad program in Cuba,” Perez said. “By August 2010, we already had an agreement with the University of Havana and were just waiting to see what would happen.”

In January 2011, university study abroad programs were officially allowed to travel to Cuba and 20 students quickly applied, paid deposits and began preparing for the trip.

Both Anderson and Vanderzee agree that they would return to Cuba in a heartbeat. Even with the three weeks they spent in Cuba, there is still more that the country and the people can offer them.

“I would definitely go back to Cuba,” Anderson said. “Christina Perez is the expert on Cuba, but by learning as much as I can about the people and their culture from their own perspectives, I can be an advocate.”

— Kelly Butler, Managing Editor

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