On March 15, more than a dozen students and two professors loaded onto an airplane in Tampa, Florida, for what was to become Stetson Law’s first study abroad program in Cuba. The trip was preceded by a course taught by Professor of Law Candace Zierdt that examined current perspectives on the Cuban Legal System and Society. Stetson’s class took place at perhaps no more pivotal time in Cuba’s history, as attitudes towards long-held sanctions began to relax. For the first time in decades, a field trip from the U.S. to Cuba had become a reality.
Professor Zierdt described how taking her class to Cuba became an incredibly moving and transformative experience, different for each of the students traveling with her on the trip.
“I don’t think you can do a class like this without understanding the culture,” said Professor Zierdt.
During a walking tour of Old Havana, Professor Zierdt described how many of the topics her students reviewed in class became real.
“All the things we saw there were things we had studied,” she said.
The class explored the roles of lawyers in Cuba, as well as the history of business, education, healthcare, human rights, even sports.
“Attorneys in Cuba in a socialist society see their role very differently than in the U.S.,” said Professor Zierdt. “They see themselves as representing the good of the country. Part of their role is to support socialist government while still trying to help their clients.”
Student Meagan Salisbury described how visiting Cuba differed from her expectations. “Culture isn’t black and white,” she said. A third-year student at Stetson focused on election law, Salisbury is a political consultant focused on human rights.
“I thought we would meet people less friendly towards Americans,” Salisbury said. “People were far less critical than I expected, and very excited about the chances of the blockade being lifted.”
In Cuba, Salisbury researched the prison system, a system which is free of violence and drugs according to a local law professor. Salisbury was skeptical. Having spent time everywhere from Kenya to Spain to Tanzania, Salisbury is a veteran world traveler who has met people all over the globe.
“Seeing how other people live gives you more of an open mind,” said Salisbury.
Part-time law student Roger Klaffka is a 25-year veteran of the Air Force who has traveled around the world. He saw visiting Cuba as an opportunity to travel to a historically inaccessible country.
“There was an undercurrent of excitement among people for things to change,” said Klaffka. “It was the best educational travel experience I had,” said Klaffka.
Student Tommy Mingledorff described visiting Cuba as following in his families’ footsteps.
“My parents visited on mission trips to Cuba,” Mingledorff explained. His grandmother won a beauty contest and traveled to Cuba as a young woman.
“Seeing people who don’t have the privileges we have: you can go to another country and meet someone who would trade anything to come to the U.S., even to be the poorest person in the U.S.,” said Mingledorff.
Historic connections between Florida and Cuba go back hundreds of years and Florida and Cuba are inextricably linked, Professor Zierdt explained.
“Opportunities for businesses and lawyers from Florida are phenomenal,” she said. “Cuba has just started to allow entrepreneurs to open their own businesses.”
A total of 20 Stetson Law students will be selected to participate in the next Spring Break study abroad program in Cuba. The class will be held in the spring semester once per week, culminating in the eight-day, seven-night trip to Havana, Cuba, from March 5-12, 2016. One additional class meeting will be held after returning from Cuba, and a reflection paper will be required to earn credit for this course.
“My students have said this was one of the biggest highlights of their educational career,” said Zierdt.
The upcoming Spring Break 2016 course will be taught on Stetson’s Gulfport campus by Professor of Law Kristen Adams. The application deadline is Oct. 15. Please see the program website for the online application.
By Brandi Palmer, Stetson Law
September 3, 2015