A cultural exchange in creative and vibrant Cuba

Cuba scholars and art students

During a cultural exchange in Cuba, Fairleigh Dickinson University students had the chance to meet with students studying at University of Matanzas. (Photo courtesy of Lisetty Nigrinis)

By Kenna Caprio

Retro cars line the streets while the architecture reflects a mix of Spanish and Art Deco styles and socialist influences, according to Fairleigh Dickinson University students Alexandra Romanczuk, Olivia Ford and Byanjana Thapa. This is Cuba: Exotic. Foreign. Embargoed.

Over winter break, 11 Global Scholars from the Metropolitan Campus visited Cuba, a country seemingly frozen in time, and still untouched by a looming thaw. As more details of the warming relationship between the United States and Cuba emerged in the news, the FDU travelers arrived for a nine-day cultural exchange — to see university life, experience Old Havana and Pinar del Río, and appreciate traditional and modern art and dance.

“Cuba is not just a traditional Caribbean getaway — not a week of sun and sand accented by a tropical margarita. Cuba is still the land of La Revolucíon, a nation of a people who fought the exploitation of sugarcane resources and sought to make something self-sustaining,” says Thapa, a senior biology major originally from Kathmandu, Nepal. “Cuba has retained its colorful charm in all the sights, smells and movements. And yet, this is a landscape that is slowly changing. In Cuba, it is the perpetual uncertainty that gives vigor to existence.”

Cuba trip Byanjana
Above: Byanjana Thapa, a senior and biology major, visits 'Fusterlandia,' the home and neighborhood of artist Jose Fuster. (Photo courtesy of Samuel Raphalides)
Cuba Alexandra
Above: Senior and humanities major Alexandra Romanczuk takes in the sights and strikes a pose in Cuba. Below: Vibrant and colorful Cuba. (Photos courtesy of Romanczuk and Lisetty Nigrinis)

Each winter break, the Global Scholars Program sponsors an international trip to a locale determined through student input and cost considerations. In 2014, it was Belize, in 2013, Istanbul, Turkey. “We develop something that will have an educational purpose and fits in with the Global Scholars values,” says Samuel Raphalides, the political science and history professor and Global Scholars director, who accompanied the students abroad with Lisetty Nigrinis, assistant director of global partnerships.

“It’s important to develop lines of communication with other cultures to see how different people cope with everyday life, what their expectations are and how creative the human spirit can be in any number of environments,” continues Raphalides.

More than just a sightseeing trip, the goal is for students to really learn about a developing country through “co-curricular field experience.”

“We took a tour of Havana on foot, visiting a scale model of the city, the old Art Deco Bacardi building, Cathedral Square, a lithograph workshop, the old fortress surrounding Havana, the University of Havana and the University of Matanzas,” says Romanczuk, a senior humanities major from Clifton, N.J. “At Matanzas we had the opportunity to ask questions about the Cuban educational system and interact with students.”

In contrast, at the University of Havana, an official public relations staff member guided the group, speaking for the state and extolling various achievements. There, the FDU group had no interaction with any Cuban students.

At University of Matanzas, and later at Finca Vigía — author Ernest Hemingway’s house near Cojimar — the state’s influence felt further away, however, with creativity and freedom much closer at hand. FDU students chatted with their art school counterparts and exchanged email addresses. “They were elated to be speaking with people their age who have ambitions, too, and yet see things differently,” says Raphalides.

That dichotomy of influences manifests throughout most aspects of life in Cuba.

“There are lots of contrasts in Havana itself,” says Raphalides, citing the reality of poverty versus the appearances of well-kept streets. “You see these buildings and billboards with revolutionary slogans — some of them very, very disturbing. ‘Country or Death,’ ‘Long Live the Revolution,’ and all kinds extolling Fidel Castro or other notables within the hierarchy,” Raphalides says.

So while the students enjoyed disconnecting from technology, feeling “off the grid,” and noting that time seemed to move more slowly in Cuba, they also noticed the contrasts.

“Not a moment is stale in Cuba — no Starbucks or Wendy’s has been able to standardize or mass-produce it. The espressos are still deeply sensual, grainy and earthy. But, the chickens are few and far between. And so are milk, pepper and toilet paper — each subject to shortage. The American embargo has crippled Cuba in many ways. No chain restaurants, no mass production of food — none of the excess that is taken for granted in the United States,” says Thapa. “Everything is rationed, and everyone makes nearly the same amount of money, whether as a doctor or doorman.”

With this trip came an intimate portrait of life in Cuba — one few Americans get to experience because of the travel restrictions in place — and the students say they felt inspired and appreciative.

“The house of Ernest Hemingway, which has been left untouched for half a century, left me feeling incredibly inspired,” says Ford, a junior majoring in humanities from Barnegat, N.J. “My favorite moment, however, has to be when we took a three-hour drive from Havana into the countryside of Pinar del Río. While everyone else napped, I had my face plastered to the window, in awe of the lush green mountains and valleys that have been left untouched and untarnished by the Cuban government.”

“Cuba as developing country was a unique travel destination, and offered us, as students attempting to grow into our role as global citizens, a fascinating sliver of perspective,” adds Romanczuk.

The Global Scholars Program, established in 2003, supports the University mission of global education through cultural and academic activities. “The four-year program is considered one of the two honors programs on campus,” says Raphalides, the other being the University Honors program. “Today, we have 50 students participating.”

Global Scholars live on campus in the Global Scholars Court (part of the University Court residence halls); engage in international travel; attend classes emphasizing global themes; and participate in at least seven cultural, intellectual and social events each semester, including U.N. forums with ambassadors. Students in the program are required to participate in at least one winter break cultural exchange and a semester of study abroad.