PSU students pack bags for groundbreaking visit to Cuba

The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been in place more than 50 years, won’t be stopping a group of Oregon students from traveling there for a study abroad program this June.

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The U.S. embargo against Cuba, which has been in place more than 50 years, won’t be stopping a group of Oregon students from traveling there for a study abroad program this June.

In fact, it will be the second Cuba trip by students from Portland State.

Many universities have developed an interest in Cuba because it has been so difficult to travel there. Eased sanctions from President Barack Obama have made it possible for students to travel there legally, and there has been much interest from Oregon’s study abroad programs in traveling to the mysterious land.

“We organized a trip for PSU students to Cuba in December, but this is the first time that the Oregon University System is running a program there,” said Alyse Collins, the assistant director of the Education Abroad program at PSU.

“[There are] a lot of good things Cuba is doing in terms of education, and [using] different models. It’s pretty interesting for our students to be able to compare and contrast,” she added.

A total of 15 students from the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and PSU will travel together to Cuba for 10 days. Everyone is set to meet on June 17 in Miami to do a tour of Little Havana; the next day they will all board a flight to Cuba.

The first piece of the program involves completing a spring course focused on Cuba’s society, politics and culture. The course uses a unique model wherein instructors from OSU lead weekly lectures while students connect online via video conference.

“It’s really an introduction to Cuba. They’re viewing films and learning about the general society,” Collins said.

Once in Cuba they’ll have a chanceto attend lectures on political relations at the University of Havana, visit museums of the revolution, meet with agriculturists and examine health care systems by visiting local clinics and hospitals.

“Students will be keeping a reflection journal the entire time, and will do a research paper when they get back,” Collins explained.

The group’s roll sheet demonstrates the program’s propensity for diversity. In addition to coming from three separate Oregon universities, students in the program also come from varying age groups, backgrounds and majors.

One of the three PSU students involved, Dani Smith, appears to be an ideal candidate for the trip. She’s an international development major with a minor in Spanish, and has done research on Cuba’s society and politics. She is also keen on salsa dancing.

“I was so excited about the opportunity, and I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I want to be right now for my studies,” Smith said. “I’m really interested in Cuba’s agriculture and health care systems.”

Smith feels that capitalist societies like the U.S. could learn much from Cuba’s alternative systems. She explained that part of her fascination with visiting is the mystique surrounding the country, since it has been a place where Americans can’t go.

“I’ve always been a little critical of how the government and media portrayed Cuba,” she said. “It’s almost like our media presents things as being either capitalist or communist—good or evil. I think somewhere in the middle is the truth.”

The process for getting the program approved was facilitated with the help of the Center for Global Education, a third-party organization with license to issue visas for students going to Cuba.

“It’s not like…going to Brazil or Costa Rica. There’s definitely a lot more to it, in terms of the paperwork you have to submit,” Collins said.

According to Smith, the process was fairly simple. Raising the funds to take part in the trip, however, was a little more difficult. She is relying on donations from friends and family to help make her dream journey a reality (visit to donate). For Smith, the enlightenment she expects to experience in Cuba will be priceless.

“I don’t think that a dictatorship is necessarily the answer, but I do think we can learn a lot from Cuba,” Smith said.

“What interests me is sustainable development and being able to get by with the resources we do have. I’m really curious to see Cuba’s perspective and to really learn from everyone there.”