The Cold War was already relegated to history by the time even the oldest students on a recent UT study abroad trip were born.
Even so, the strain on US–Cuba relations for the past few decades has stuck around as a reminder of those darker times.
Now, thanks to a thawing diplomatic climate, those students got the chance to experience Cuba—its people, its places, and its culture—in a way that would have been but a dream to their parents or grandparents.
“This trip gave our students a chance to see Cuba up close, to see that despite differences in a political sense, we are all human,” said Judith Mallory, international coordinator for UT’s College of Engineering. “Travel is still restricted enough so that you can’t just go on a vacation. You have to experience the culture, do learning activities, and really interact with locals.
“This was the chance of a lifetime.”
Along with engineering students, honors students fulfilling their Ready for the World requirement took part in the learning adventure.
Their main work took place at Casa Blanca, a short ride across the bay from Havana on a somewhat rustic ferry.
There, the group helped construct a cabana, a task which sounds simple enough but was made much more difficult due to the lack of supplies.
“All the nails we had were pulled from previously used boards, and they had to be straightened again before we could use them,” said Mallory. “Because of conditions like that, we took several gifts of friendship, like new screwdrivers, hammers, and tools, that we left behind for them to use once we had gone.”
Culturally, the group was exposed to several aspects of Cuban life, from a working tobacco farm and cigar factory to museums, statues, art, and architecture.
One particularly moving moment for the group was a display at the Fortress of San Carlos.
There, the remnants of the US U2 spy plane piloted by Major Rudolf Anderson were out for public viewing. Anderson, shot down by a Soviet-made surface-to-air missile, was the only fatality of the Cuban missile crisis.
Despite the grim reminder of the countries’ tangled past, the warmth, hospitality, and openness of the Cuban people made an impression on the group. Staying in a casa particular—essentially a homestay—deepened that connection.
“Living in what is basically the same conditions as the locals, eating food in local houses—those are the things that will stick with our students a lifetime,” said Mallory.
David Goddard, University of Tennessee