A group of 17 freshmen from UT’s Haslam College of Business spent part of their winter break in Cuba. They returned with plenty of fun memories, but also cultural insights that will help them as they continue their studies.
The students were in the 2016 First Year Experience in Cuba, a program seeking to engage underclass business students with global business issues and expose them to study abroad.
The trip was led by Sara Easler, director of international programs and study abroad, and Kelly Hewett, associate professor of marketing. According to Easler, the purpose of the trip was for students to begin thinking about the intersection of business, government, and culture.
“The expectation wasn’t that they leave the country as experts,” Easler said. “Instead, we wanted students to be better prepared to observe, analyze, reflect and critique based on their experiences. We wanted them to bring this back as part of their business education and personal development.”
Students learned about the history of the United States-Cuba relationship and the dynamic changes that have taken place in the Cuban economy in recent years. They observed some of the new entrepreneurial business opportunities that have emerged as part of a fledgling private sector in an otherwise communist system.
At Cuba Libro, a bookstore and community center in Havana, several of the students met a local woman who attended medical school but passed up a job in the national health system in favor of working as a tattoo artist in the country’s budding private sector.
“She wanted to be a surgeon, but couldn’t get the specialty she wanted,” said Sarah Tanner, a public administration major from Kingsport, Tennessee. “Instead, she makes more money as a private-sector tattoo artist. It was eye-opening because we place a high level of prestige and value on certain professions, but it’s different there.”
The students agreed that their best source of information about Cuba came from talking to its residents. They visited various locales including a tobacco farm, the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a state-subsidized barbershop, and a memorial to Jose Marti, a Cuban national hero.
“The Jose Marti memorial upset me because it was so nice, and we’d just seen so many areas that I would consider slums,” Tanner said. “They obviously invested a lot of money into the memorial by keeping it illuminated and filling its fountains with clean water. Meanwhile, the hotel had blackouts and water shortages. It frustrated me.”
Jay Stanga, a public administration major from Brentwood, Tennessee, had a similar reaction.
“I wrote about that in my final paper,” Stanga said. “It’s like the government prioritizes its international image over the day-to-day lives of the people they are actually supposed to serve.”
Stanga added that his perspective on Cuba changed multiple times during the trip. “I thought there would be a heavy military presence, but it wasn’t as controlled and constrained as I thought it would be,” he said.
For Tanner, the experience that felt most uniquely Cuban during the trip was visiting the Coppelia ice cream parlor in Havana. The state-run company sells scoops of ice cream for five Cuban cents, making it affordable to the local population.
“It’s a huge place and it’s not very well organized, so you end up waiting an hour and a half,” Tanner said. “They don’t have all the flavors on the menu, but the attitude I kind of picked up on is that people feel having inexpensive ice cream and plenty of time to socialize is a fundamental right for Cubans.”
Tanner added that it was interesting to see people patronize a business “not necessarily because they are motivated by the product, but because they want to socialize.”
Will Hensley, a business analytics major from Alpharetta, Georgia, also enjoyed learning about the Cuban culture and was struck by Cubans’ ability to dance. “They learn to dance salsa as little kids in the same way that we would learn to throw a baseball or football,” he said. “It’s really impressive.”
Nick Trushel, a finance major from Brentwood, Tennessee, said he hesitated to visit Cuba during winter break instead of joining his friends at home.
“I hadn’t seen my friends in months, so I wasn’t completely sure,” Trushel said. “It ended up being one of the greatest weeks of my life. It pushed me beyond my comfort zone. Having all of these new experiences was life-changing.”