For some students, it was the chance to visit the country of their ancestors. For others, it was the opportunity to see a place they’ve only read about in books. For all of them, being able to visit Cuba was an experience they’ll never forget.
For nearly two weeks in May, 31 University of Redlands students, staff, and friends explored Havana and the Cuban countryside during May Term. Led by Chaplain John Walsh and Chapel Events Coordinator Peter Tupou, the class was set up before President Obama announced in December that the U.S. and Cuba were working on normalizing relations. It was important for Walsh and Tupou to come up with an itinerary that was authentic and educational.
“We wanted to immerse ourselves completely in all facets of Cuban life,” Tupou said. “We tried to cover everything in a cultural immersion pedagogical model. Each day had a theme about what we would learn about and experience.”
Walsh led his first May Term trip to Cuba in 2012. His brother, Edward “Ned” Walsh, is an expert on Cuba, having taught at the University of Matanzas for several years, and spends his retirement leading educational trips to the island. In 2012, they were introduced to a group called Espiral, a Cuban non-profit community project made up of students and workers from different social and professional spheres.
“They are united by a common dream: to contribute to social, cultural and ecological development of Cuban people, the Cuban community and the society in which they live,” Tupou said. “This relationship with Espiral is what helped us plan our second trip to Cuba along with the advisement of Ned. The director of Espiral, Rodrigo Huamachi was a key figure in planning the details and our itinerary, setting up the meetings with the people we would meet — many who were high ranking officials directors, or highly respected and world renowned in their respective fields — places we would visit, and the community service project we would participate in.”
As word spread about the course, several students knew they had to enroll. For Evan Furgurson ’18, a travel buff who enjoys exploring new places, it was a given that Cuba was where he would spend his May Term.
“It’s a place I’ve always wanted to go,” he said. “I knew that Cuba would change very soon, even before Obama made the announcement about regulating relations, and I knew things were moving in a direction that would not be as authentic. The Cuba that you picture in your mind, with the old cars and other cool stuff, that’s what I wanted to see before the politics changed.”
For Sienna Opara ’16, the trip wasn’t just an educational opportunity — it was also a way for her to connect with relatives that she had never met before. When the group finally arrived in Cuba on April 29, she was in awe.
“As we walked off the charter plane onto Cuban soil, it all seemed like a dream,” she said. “I couldn’t believe I had actually reached Cuba. Apart from the humid weather and the change of scenery, I felt as though I were traveling home to Los Angeles — traveling to a welcoming community similar to my family back home.”
The students spent their first day adjusting to life in Havana. Right off the bat, Furgurson found every Cuban he encountered to be “welcoming,” “warm-hearted,” and wanting to talk about the United States.
“They were very curious, and wanted to know about this country where their family is living that they rarely get to talk to,” he said. “They did say that they hated the government, but knew the difference between the American government and the American people.”
Over the course of 15 days, the students explored Habana Vieja, Havana’s historical and oldest district; went to an International Workers Day parade in Plaza de la Revolución Square; visited the Museum of the Revolution, Literacy Campaign Museum, Mirimar Trade Center, and Museum of Fine Arts; met with representatives of the Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples; and painted an elementary school with Espiral.
“We participated in a gay pride parade that Raul Castro’s daughter was leading, called Conga Against Homophobia,” Furgurson said. “There was conga music playing the whole time. After we painted the school we went to a really beautiful beach with the people from Espiral. That day was hands down one of the best experiences, and will stick with me as the most fantastic day.”
For Jacob Khuri ’17, visiting the Literacy Campaign Museum and attending a parade made a lasting impact.
“While listening to the different stories and challenges of thousands who chose to teach the illiterate, I learned there grew a sense of hopeful ambition among literacy brigades and their students, despite a time of continual hardship,” he said. “I also remember that early morning we stood in the Plaza De La Revolución. It was an incredible experience seeing thousands from around the globe marching together in a parade that engaged as Cuba's proud symbol of historic victory and later success both within and beyond the region.”
Furgurson said he was amazed to find out that Cuba has a 100 percent literacy rate, neighborhood maternity clinics for women to stay at during their pregnancy, free advanced degrees and medical care, and voter turnout of 98 percent.
“All these things we don’t know pop out and are surprising,” he said. “I also met an interesting young man who was against the Castros, who tried to float to the U.S. three times on a homemade raft. It was super interesting to talk to someone considered a counter-revolutionary, in a very secretive way late at night. It was eye-opening for me to see people are suffering and don’t think the system they have in place works. It was the flip side of all the good things I heard.”
The classmates became close over the trip, forging bonds not only with each other, but also their Cuban peers.
“I think a great part of what made the experience what is was were the people who joined the trip,” Opara said. “I had a marvelous time learning about the Cuban history, culture, and people with such a diverse and open-minded group of Americans. I can honestly say that I was able to interact with each person on the trip and gain a better understanding each one’s persona. I was blessed to have had the opportunity to join an amazing group of people to such a joyful and welcoming place as Cuba. Being able to spend time with her aunt and family was by far the highlight of Cuba for Opara.
“It was such an emotionally overwhelming, nerve racking, and ultimately amazing experience,” she said. “When you have spent many of your younger days hearing stories about relatives you haven’t met before and you finally get the chance to do so, it seems so surreal and incredibly awesome at the same time.” After being in Cuba and listening firsthand to how the embargo affects people, both Furgurson and Opara say they want to see it lifted soon.
“We don’t have to continue this,” Furgurson said. It makes products cost five to six times more, and not only bans things made in America but bans things invented by an American. It’s economically crippling. Cuba is an amazing, beautiful place, where the people are fantastic., and the embargo is wrong.”
“It’s not the politicians that suffer from the embargo, it’s the Cuban citizens,” Opara said. “As a witness to how brave and compassionate Americans have fought for the justice of many worthy causes, I challenge those and every other good-natured person to fully learn the effects of the embargo.” For Tupou, it felt like the trip took place at the right moment, during a pivotal point in history.
“Leading the trip for me personally was an amazing experience,” Tupou said. “I fell in love with Cuba, and I feel a part of me will always be there. It's hard for me to explain it; the people, the culture, their struggles and accomplishments, there’s a magical charm that Cuba has that I’m afraid will be lost once the embargo goes away, and America has access there. But even more so, the students on our trip were outstanding.”