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Michelle Terry '78 at Universidad Central "Marta Abreu" de Las Villas in Santa Clara, Cuba with their vice dean Raciel Lima Onozco. Terry and Onozco visited about U.S. student exchange programs with Cuba.
CBT Study Abroad Advisor Travels to Cuba
After a year and a half of planning, the stars aligned for Western Illinois University College of Business and Technology (CBT) academic and study abroad advisor Michelle Terry ’78 when she was able to participate in an unprecedented trip to Cuba in mid-June.
A socialist nation, Cuba was closed to U.S. travel in the 1960s as part of an embargo enacted by President John F. Kennedy. The restrictions have varied throughout the last 50 years, with periodic easing for educational travel off-and-on since the early 2000s. In January 2011, President Barack Obama re-opened travel for short term study abroad programs.
During that time, Terry was participating in an educational leave to do international research to benefit study abroad students. When she learned Obama had enacted legislation that would open up travel to Cuba she was more than intrigued.
“I had been curious about Cuba for some time,” Terry said. “Everyone wants to go to Cuba and see what the country, culture and people are really like. Since it had been forbidden due to the U.S. embargo, our curiosity could not be satisfied. So, when President Obama opened up travel again to Cuba for educational purposes, I was very excited.”
Terry contacted Rick Carter and Emily Gorlewski from the WIU Center for International Studies to verify that WIU would consider Cuba as a study abroad location and a possible site for faculty programs. Shortly thereafter, Gorlewski was able to connect with John McAullif, an expert on Cuba, at a national conference and relayed his information to Terry.
McAullif’s non-profit organization, The Fund for Reconciliation and Development (FFRD), has been working to help normalize U.S.-Cuba relations since the late 1990s, by traveling with educators to Cuba to build relationships and facilitate study abroad programs.
Through the years, WIU has sponsored only a handful of students for study abroad to Cuba, but the last of those students studied abroad long ago. Travel restrictions under the Bush administration resulted in a sharp decline in academic travel to Cuba in the 1980s.
This makes the possibility of a WIU study abroad trip to Cuba entirely unprecedented according to Gorlewski, WIU study abroad assistant director.
“Michelle’s trip is an important step in our being able to develop programs for students and faculty to research and study in Cuba. We are very excited that she has taken the initiative with the support of the College and we hope that students and faculty will be interested in academic travel to Cuba.”
Throughout her 10-day trip, Terry traveled with McAuliff and 11 other people from nine U.S. universities. They traveled to Havana, Matanzas, Villa Clara and Cienfuegos and visited seven universities, where they met with university officials, attended presentations about U.S.-Cuba relations, listened to a discussion of social and economic renovation in Cuba, and learned about the Cuban system of higher education.
On her unprecedented trip, Terry visited seven Cuban universities including the Universidad de Havana and its administration building.
In Cuba, every university is a state university and many have satellite campuses. Cuban higher education is completely free to all Cubans and there are no private universities.
The university system is under the ministry of higher education. One similarity to the U.S.—they have a wide range of fields in both graduate and undergraduate programs. Recently the Catholic Church and the Spanish system have started discussions about sponsoring a business management training MBA in Cuba, however, that’s the only diversion from the state structured system.
Terry was surprised that the Cuban university employees demonstrated such enthusiasm to collaborate with U.S. universities and were very willing to talk about their country. McAullif said that talking directly with the university administration was a major breakthrough on this trip.
“This was a first,” he said. “American universities have been going to visit, but there’s been no real communication about collaboration and no real ability to have access or for an official reception of U.S. educators by the Cuban universities.”
Throughout the trip, Terry and her group were also given a window into the richness of Cuban culture. They enjoyed a private performance by an Audtrain Celtic Cuban band, sampled local cuisine and attended a performance of the Opera de la Calle, a “street opera” community project. The group also had the opportunity to visit an agricultural market, shops by the self-employed (local businesses) and Finca Vijia, the home of Ernest Hemingway.
Although she enjoyed the trip immensely, getting there wasn’t easy. Terry noted that in addition to the U.S. travel embargo, communism makes travel more restrictive with more rules to understand and abide by.
“Only three travel companies are approved by the government in Cuba to arrange educational trips; you can’t contract with an independent travel company in Cuba for lodging or meals,” she said. “But you can pay on the side, you can go individually to private businesses (hotels, restaurants), but the travel agent cannot recommend those places or take you there.”
In addition, there’s no U.S. embassy in Cuba. The equivalent is called the U.S. Interests Section and there’s one American contact there. However, that contact is restricted to Havana only and cannot travel throughout the country.
Old American cars (pre-1960) are still a primary mode of transportation in Cuba and are a reminder of the trade embargo (banning all U.S. goods) which began more than 50 years ago.
All visitors to Cuba are required to have non-U.S. medical insurance. American visitors have to buy health insurance in Cuba because U.S. insurance is considered an import and is not accepted.
Since 2008, cell phone access has been opened to more Cubans. Internet access is available in a few regions, but is extremely limited and very expensive at $6 for 30 minutes. This lack of “connectivity” surprised Terry noting, “this significantly impacts the ability of Cuban and U.S. professors to exchange information and research electronically.”
Aside from the challenges, Terry and McAullif see tremendous benefits to study abroad programs for WIU students in Cuba—a nation that is very literate and well educated and puts a great value on higher education.
“Visiting students get all the cross cultural and linguistic benefits that are available in other Latin American countries,” said McAullif. “Cuba has been engaged in this sort of social experiment for 50 years; it’s an interesting process that faculty and students can witness the nation’s transformation and see them put aside the things that didn’t work.”
Terry added, “I see the opening up of Cuba for educational travel as an opportunity to teach faculty and students about Cuba, and get them into the country, so they will be better prepared to work with Cuba if the embargo is lifted. If the embargo is lifted, there will be many business opportunities for the US to work with Cuba.”
In all, Terry said she was overjoyed to have gotten the opportunity to travel to a country where so few WIU delegates have been able to go.
“My hope and goal is to lead students on a short term student trip with faculty on a separate program to do research,” she said. “I’d like to do this in the 2013-14 academic year. It would be open to all University students and faculty.”