Student Travel to Cuba Grows Amid Thawing Relations

As relations thaw between the United States and Cuba, Harvard undergraduates are showing an increased interest in the island nation, though some are wary of how the influx of Americans to the country will influence the educational experience there.

Harvard has long maintained a relationship with Cuba; at the turn of the 20th century, Harvard scholars began conducting tropical research in Cienfuegos, Cuba and also invited Cuban teachers to Cambridge for lectures. More than one hundred years later— in 2008— Harvard established a study abroad program in Cuba.

The number of students who traveled to Cuba last semester to study nearly doubled from the previous fall, according to Erin E. Goodman, associate director of programs for the David Rockefeller Institute for Latin American Studies, which runs the program.

More generally, student interest in the country has grown since President Barack Obama announced the United States would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014, reversing over half a century of American policy towards the country.

“Students are buzzing about Cuba. It’s not a tidal wave, but there’s real interest growing and for good reason,”Jonathan M. Hansen, a Social Studies lecturer and member of the Cuba Studies Faculty Committee at the David Rockefeller Center, said.

This year, four or five students contacted him to ask if he would advise their theses on Cuba, Hansen said—an unusually large number.

The experience for Harvard students in David Rockefeller Center's study abroad program in Cuba has changed in the wake of Obama’s announcement, Hansen said, noting a recent influx of Americans from other universities to the country.

“The point of many of these programs is immersion and the more students show up at the University of Havana, the more tempting it will be for those students and for our students to talk to each other in English,” Hansen said. “The students I talked to in the last couple of semesters who come back love it, but they just say that it is changing.”

Austin R. Mueller ’17, who studied in Cuba last semester, said while he got to know Cuban students at the University of Havana, the inflow of American students impeded his ability to interact with Cuban students outside the classroom. While in Cuba, he lived alongside American students from Harvard and other universities, and said the Americans spoke mostly in English to each other.

Despite the changing experience in Cuba, Goodman said the program is still more immersive than many others in the Spanish-speaking world.

“Even though it feels compared to the past that there are more Americans, it’s still unique in that it’s one of the most authentic experiences you can have,” Goodman said.

Some students interested in traveling to Cuba have turned to Lynn Shirey, Harvard’s librarian for Latin America, Spain, and Portugal, who said she has received a large number of phone calls and emails from students asking for advice about how to travel to Cuba under the new regulations.

Travel may not be the only experience affected by the changing relations, Shirely said. Harvard's library system can't buy material directly from Cuba because of the U.S. embargo, but Shirely predicts this arrangement will change in the future.

In addition to sending students to Cuba, the Rockefeller Center recruits fellows from Cuba and supports faculty research in the country.

“It’s an old and established and good program,” Hansen said. “There’s no question that everybody wants it to grow and do well and is committed to it doing so.”

—Staff Writer Mia Karr can be reached at Follow her on twitter @miackarr.


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