Education Echo Blog

University of Redlands School of Education

Reflections on the Study Away Experience in Cuba

Group of people standing around playing musical instruments
"We danced, we laughed, we connected and most importantly, we learned!"

Cassandra Spears, ’09, ’10, ’12, ‘22

I did not realize I wanted to visit Cuba until I saw the opportunity arrive to my inbox, “Interested in a Study Away Course in Cuba?”. YES! I knew we had a complicated relationship with Cuba but wanted to know more and wanted to gain that knowledge from the voice of Cubans themselves. I also had seen pictures and knew it was a beautiful country, which did not disappoint. The beaches and even rural and city areas have a unique charm and picturesque beauty to them. I lived with the most amazing family, and we hit it off day one. This included their furry family member named Negrita, who helped ease me missing my fur babies at home. Any extra time I had outside of lectures, I spent with my Cuban family as I wanted to fully immerse myself into the lifestyle, as well as improve my Spanish. Speaking of which, the language barrier intimidated me with the little Spanish I had, I got an app to practice prior to going, but with patience and understanding we managed to communicate effectively. I enjoyed the experiences with my Cuban family more than anything else on the trip as it allowed me to live the true Cuban lifestyle. Having said that, I acquired pertinent knowledge and engaged in meaningful discussions during our lectures with various Cuban experts on the trip as well. The lectures helped me connect to my Cuban family and I gained a new perspective on what their experiences were on the receiving end of U.S. decisions and actions. This trip has changed me and the experiences from this trip will be with me for my lifetime. If you are worried as to how you will be received by Cubans, the answer is, with love. There is no hate in Cuba. You will be received with welcoming arms and curious minds. Be ready to engage in difficult conversations and to have your thinking challenged. Every country has pros and cons, be prepared to be faced with our cons firsthand and likely get a little uncomfortable. We all need to be uncomfortable at times as way to garner new knowledge and understand other perspectives. I hope you consider this amazing and once in a lifetime opportunity. Being a student is one of the only ways you can visit Cuba, take advantage while you can!

Denise Lopez ’20, ‘23

I am currently a student at the University of Redlands, where I am currently working towards a Doctorate in Education, Leadership for Educational Justice degree (Ed.D.).  I also completed my Master’s in Education from the University of Redlands in 2020.  I am a secondary school teacher at Eisenhower High School in Rialto, California, and this study away program to Cuba was nothing but amazing.  My expectations for this study away program to Cuba were to gain some knowledge on the Cuban culture and to use this knowledge to help and guide me through my dissertation by opening my mind a little bit further.  The two marvelous weeks in Cuba allowed for me to truly live in the present moment, reminding me to slow down and breathe from time to time.  It has also reminded me and taught me more about community and the importance of it.  This is especially true as I am a working member of my community, the community that helped raise me.  In education, community is important because we must continually support those in our care.  We must have each other's back, and always lend a helping hand.  In being immersed in the Cuban community in Marianao, Cuba I was able to observe the Cuban people thrive.  The Cuban people reminded me not to only learn from those in my care as an educator, but also the importance of smiling, laughing, loving, and most importantly, how to dance from time to time.  The one word that sums up my Study Away Cuban experience is unity.  Through the trip, my wonderful colleagues and I had the opportunity to unite with the Cuban people and make long life connections.  This could not have been possible without the leadership from Dr. Charest.  I look forward to the growth of this program, in hopes that I can return once I complete my doctorate program.

Elaine Talamaivao-Lafaele ‘23

I chose to go on the study away trip to Cuba with the School of Education because I wanted to learn about Cuba’s rich history in music and dance, experience the food, and be immersed in the culture. I am so glad that I took the necessary steps as a School of Business student to participate in this once in a lifetime adventure with my small cohort and Dr. Brian Charest. My time in Cuba immersed me in Cuban arts and dance and it’s clear that Cuban arts form part of their cultural identity. As a dance teacher and cultural educator, I was especially excited about our class lesson in Cuban rhythm. Our incredible teacher took us all on a theory-based lesson through cha cha cha, salsa, and rumba! After dancing for us and showing us the steps, she had all of us dance with her! Our teacher's lessons on rumba took me on a deep and historical journey as rumba is considered "the quintessential genre of Cuban secular music and dance." The Cuban Minister of Culture once stated that, "Rumba without Cuba is not rumba, and Cuba without rumba is not Cuba."  For me rumba's rhythm, percussion, and movement were a window into the Cuban lifestyle. The music, the movements, the passion and the connection – all of it transformed whomever was watching or participating into the realm of Cuban storytelling and legacy. We danced, we laughed, we connected and most importantly, we learned!

Most of our days were spent studying at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center.  While at MLK, we listened to lectures about the Cuban Revolution, the system of government, and the US embargo and its effects on the Cuban economy and people. We visited the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes de La Habana, where we learned about pieces from the Spanish Colonial period through contemporary works. 

And of course, how can you go on a study away trip without experiencing the night life? Let me tell you, Fábrica de Arte Cubano did not disappoint! We were first told that it was an art gallery, but when we arrived, it felt like a Milan summer wearable arts fashion show! I instantly fell in love with the fashion, the live tattooing, the people, the interactions and the full-on arts experience and the dancing!

My connection to the Cuban people was experienced and exchanged through every single person that was a part of my Cuban trip.  I am grateful that Dr. Charest chose a program that gave the students the opportunity to learn from the families in the working-class suburbs of Havana, Marianao. My Cuban family gave me the biggest gift during this pandemic, the opportunity to feel and see community in action, the feeling of community love, the embracement of hope in the face of adversity, the strength to continue when times are tough, and the true celebration of life and community through art, music, and dance!   

Arah Parker '22

Throughout my educational journey, I never had the opportunity to participate in study abroad programs. Not that I did not want to travel to another country and be immersed in the local culture, yet as an African American student, I did not believe that an opportunity was for a student like me. Reasons for this mindset included scarcity of resources and not seeing other students like me travel the world. After graduating with my bachelor's and master's degrees, I focused solely on expanding my career within higher education and with the mindset that I would never travel as a student.

Thankfully, the opportunity to travel to Cuba presented itself while I was in my first year of the doctoral program. As my master’s thesis focused on Cuban Tourism, I was excited to connect with Dr. Charest for the opportunity to travel to Cuba in 2019 and learn more about the culture and the educational system. I am proud to say that as a doctoral student, I finally had the opportunity to participate in the short-term study away program in 2019 and as an alumnus in 2022. For the 2022 trip, I wanted to have a different experience and to help give back to other students traveling along with Dr. Charest. Now, as an alumnus, I asked Dr. Charest if I could assist with logistical planning and facilitation, to which he agreed. Given my research background and previous travel experience, I was excited to share my Cuba experience with the 2022 cohort and to see their experiences unfold throughout the trip. As time permitted, I shared my memories of traveling to specific places in 2019, such as Playa Larga and the Bay of Pigs Museum.

While I witnessed the resiliency of the Cuban people during the 2019 trip, I was able to better understand that regardless of circumstances, our Cuban friends made the decision to thrive. The aspect of thriving and not only surviving was evident as we learned that Cuba’s biotech sector created five COVID-19 vaccines to disseminate throughout the island. Additionally, I realized the extent of Cuba’s exclusion from a global perspective, as the greatest need for families included over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, Tylenol, and cold medication. While most individuals in the United States can access such items, OTC items were scarce throughout the island. Lastly, the most anticipated and important conversation took place with a professor specializing in Cuban history and relations with the United States. One student asked for the professor’s insight regarding the embargo between Cuba and the United States and what would happen if the embargo ended. The professor explained to our group that Cuba currently is not ready for the embargo to end, as the existing infrastructure is not prepared to handle a change in relations with the United States. I appreciated the professor’s answer, as most would automatically assume that Cuba is ready for the embargo to end and to immediately restore relations, yet the reality is that restoring relations with the United States is a gradual process, in which Cuban infrastructure needs to be evaluated prior to making a monumental decision.

Summer 2023: Study Away in Cuba

The School of Education has a potential Study Away opportunity taking place Summer 2023 to Cuba. Travel dates have not yet been confirmed, but will most likely be late May through early June 2023. 

This two-week trip to Cuba offers students the opportunity to see and experience Cuba firsthand. Students live with Cuban families while studying the history, politics, and social institutions that structure much of Cuban society.

Interest Form for Summer 2023: Study Away