Newburyport HS students, teachers head to Cuba next month

NEWBURYPORT — Not long ago, the idea of visiting communist Cuba would have been unthinkable for the average American citizen, but that’s no longer the case.

Twenty-two students and four teachers from Newburyport High School are heading off on a nine-day excursion to the island nation during school vacation week, Feb. 17-26.

Visual arts teacher Aileen Maconi is the adviser for the school’s International Cultural Club, which organized the trip that received approval last year. She said the grade level of the student contingent ranges from sophomores to seniors, and the faculty members are from different departments.

“Science, art and Spanish are represented. We wanted to make sure we could spread the wealth so the kids will be learning across the curriculum during the trip,” said Maconi, who is in her 14th year at NHS and is one of the teachers making the trek. “it’s a people-to-people cultural exchange. There are four different types of visas needed to go to Cuba. We were able to procure educational visas to make the trip.”

The ability to travel to Cuba has become more plausible since diplomatic relations with the United States were restored in 2015. Relations were severed in 1961 during the Cold War, shortly after the Fidel Castro-led Cuban Revolution two years earlier and subsequent economic embargo enacted by the U.S. in 1960. The countries remained at odds for more than 50 years.

Pointing out that inevitable changes are on the horizon for Cuba, Maconi said the opportunity to visit the country in its current incarnation was hard to pass up.

“We really wanted to take advantage of the opportunity,” she said. “It’s a chance for our students to see Cuba as it is and witness the political and economic impacts among both nations.”

So what will the group be doing during the trip?

“We’re planning to visit people where they live, in their places of work, and within their communities,” Maconi said. “We’re also visiting schools to get a look at education [from Cuba’s] perspective, and to share our experiences with theirs.”

The group also plans to visit the University of Havana to learn about life at the college level from Cuban faculty and students, Maconi said. Other activities could include visiting one of Cuba’s national parks, meeting environmentalists and learning about their efforts to preserve nature and wildlife, she said.

“We may also go to a tobacco farm and visit an organic farm. Cuba is very advanced in the area of organic farming,” said Maconi, who added that arts and entertainment won’t be left out of the picture. “We’ll meet with lots of artists, too. I think we’re supposed to meet with a photographer and a ballet troupe. And we’re going to meet with a sports team.”

The most important purpose of the trip, according to Maconi, is to help give teenagers a “grander” world view.

“In the bigger picture, we want to provide the opportunity for Newburyport students to become great global citizens,” she said. “Part of that is being educated about the world in a hands-on capacity if possible.”

Maconi pointed out that the specifics of the trip’s itinerary are subject to change. Cuba handles that part of the program.

“It’s a controlled process. They do all the planning on their end and they’re assigning a person who will be with us 24/7,” she said.

The trip has been organized through EF Tours, an international education travel organization with a facility in Boston. After the trip was given the go-ahead last year, fundraising activities raised money to help cover the cost, which is estimated at more than $3,000 per person.

Greg Phipps, Newburyport News

January 10, 2017

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