It’s an exclusive classroom experience that only a handful of University of Nebraska-Lincoln students have experienced in the past decade.
Full of 1950s-era Chevrolets and crumbling art deco buildings, Communist-era Cuba has not been a hot destination for foreign study.
Easing tensions between the U.S. and Cuba likely will change that, however, as negotiations led to a “normalizing” of relations in mid-December.
Before American influence invades the island located only 90 miles from the Florida coast, UNL College of Journalism and Mass Communications students will try to uncover how Cuba uses its culture to promote its image rather than traditional media strategies common in other parts of the world.
Led by advertising and public relations professor Phyllis Larsen, the trip began as an idea in September to learn more about the country largely viewed as a mysterious communist enemy by most Americans.
“Experts have been predicting a normalizing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba for years,” Larsen said. “I’ve been thinking about that and thinking that if we want to see Cuba in its beauty of today without a lot of influence from the U.S., now would be the time to do it.”
In May, about a dozen UNL students will travel to Cuba for a three-week study abroad trip that promises full cultural immersion into Cuban heritage.
Larsen is calling the trip “Cuba: Mystique and the Message,” and said UNL students will look at how the “media environment and culture impact the way informational messaging takes place.”
The 2015 trip will mark the second time UNL journalism students have gone to Cuba. In 2003, professor Joe Starita led students on a two-week trip centered on discovering just how difficult it can be to find the truth of a matter, particularly a subject as tough to crack as Cuba.
“The truth is often elusive, and often between the two extremes as was dramatically unveiled to our students,” Starita said.
On one extreme, the perception of Cuba as a “wretched, hopeless hellhole rife with tyrannical despots squeezing the lifeblood from its 11 million people” was a common notion among the Cuban-Americans looking in from the outside.
On the other side of the spectrum, Starita said, was the image promoted by the Cuban leadership as a country with “a colorblind society where people lock hands in a socialist ‘Kumbaya’ from dawn to dusk.”
Being on the ground and among the Cuban people, however, painted a new picture.
“The ordinary Cuban person loves Americans,” Starita said. “They hate the American government, but they do not hate Americans. That was demonstrated hour after hour, day after day.”
Shane Pekny, one of the students who traveled to Cuba with Starita’s group, called the trip “an educational and enlightening opportunity.”
“Aside from Cuba itself, the opportunity to sink our teeth into a story and really pick it apart and look at it from several angles over the course of an entire year was a very enticing thing and something you don’t have the opportunity to do very often,” Pekny said.
Being in a country with a strained relationship with the U.S. also taught Pekny, now a grant writer for Boys Town, that while governments might have disputes, those disagreements do not have to damage interpersonal relationships.
“I learned you should always approach a person who lives far away with as few preconceptions as you can possibly have and have a very open mind and be curious, ask questions and listen,” Pekny said. “You should also be willing to talk honestly about yourself and your own perspectives and the tension will disappear almost immediately.”
The end result of UNL’s first journalism project into Cuba resulted in a magazine published by the college in 2003, “Cuba: An Elusive Truth.”
Starita said UNL’s next excursion to the old Soviet ally will arrive at an interesting time in the history of both the U.S. and Cuba.
“This whole normalization is about hope, it’s about burying the ideological dinosaurs of the past and it’s focused on the next generation of Cubans, both in Cuba and the younger generation in southern Florida,” he said. “They will be the main beneficiaries of this change.”
Pekny said UNL students returning to the country should take note that “there is no typical Cuban” and to pay attention to how the Cuban people determine their own future.
“It will be interesting to see how the Cuban voice will be represented and respected in the future of Cuba,” he said.
By Chris Dunker, Lincoln Journal Star
January 4, 2015