UA in Cuba offers cultural experience to students
UA in Cuba offers cultural experience to students
IN NEWS / BY HEATHER BUCHANAN / ON APRIL 14, 2014 AT 12:00 AM /
Five University of Alabama students are spending their spring semester
in Havana, Cuba, as part of the Alabama in Cuba study abroad program.
Michael Schnepf, a professor in the department of modern languages and
classics, has led groups in the semester-long program since the spring
of 2009. Schnepf not only organizes the program but also teaches a
special topics Spanish class, SP 390, while the group is in Cuba. The
class features a series of guest speakers and a semester-long research
“After about two weeks on the island, all students are obliged to select
a topic which they will research during the remaining months,” Schnepf
said. “Topics such as Santeria, urban gardens, race, the role of lawyers
and the trajectory of Cuban music are just a few of the fascinating
subjects that University of Alabama students have investigated here in
In addition to SP 390, students also study Cuban history, culture and
U.S. relations at la Universidad de la Habana and Ciudadano
Universitario Jose Antonio Echavarra. These courses present a special
opportunity to visit the places studied in class.
Kourtney Davis, a sophomore majoring in mechanical engineering and
currently studying in Cuba, said visiting the Bay of Pigs after
discussing it in class made it more memorable.
“It really put into perspective how the Cubans felt about United States
citizens at the time,” Davis said. “I remember seeing a caption of a
photo that said ‘imperialist aggressions,’ and it took me a second to
realize that it was directed to the U.S.”
For the duration of their stay, students reside in the Montehabana
Aparthotel in Miramar, a historically upscale neighborhood in western
“The kitchen is great because we are able to cook most meals at home,”
she said. “The hotel has several restaurants, a pool, gym and a store.
It’s great that we have so much available to us.”
Havana’s nightlife also provides students with entertainment and
opportunities to explore. Jamila Flowers, a freshman majoring in finance
currently studying in Havana, said the unpredictability of the nighttime
scene makes Havana especially interesting.
“Every night there is something new going on,” she said. “People playing
music, dancing, singing and a lot more. You never really know what you
are going to see or hear, you just go there knowing you are going to be
surprised at what you’ll see.”
Students participating in the program also have the chance to take part
in practices unique to Cuban culture. Flowers described using the
“maquinas,” which is a collective taxi system in Cuba.
“You just stand on the side of the road and hope someone stops for you,
and then after they take you where you are supposed to go. You just pay
them between 10 and 20 Cuban pesos, which is equivalent to 50 cents to a
dollar,” Flowers said. “I know I will never get to experience this in
the U.S. so it’s kind of cool to get to do this.”
In addition to enjoying what the city lifestyle has to offer, students
must also adjust to the numerous differences between life in the United
States and Cuba. Seemingly stuck in the past, Cuba is a country caught
in the 1950s and 1960s, Schnepf said. Because Skype is blocked and phone
calls home are expensive, Flowers said the lack of communication
available in Cuba has been frustrating.
“In the U.S., communication is so feasible through Internet and cell
phones, but here Internet is limited and cell phone use is rare,”
Flowers said. “Even using landlines is difficult. The WiFi connection is
very weak, and it also costs between $4.50 and $8 an hour to use.”
On the other hand, a lack of communication can be seen as a blessing in
disguise. Michael Lasonczyk, a senior majoring in political science and
Spanish, said he appreciated not having access to instant communication
while participating in the program last spring.
“Living in Cuba in general was pretty liberating as ironic as that may
sound to many,” he said. “Cubans live their lives without so many things
that keep Americans stressed out or tied down. I actually enjoyed not
having my cell phone and only having limited Internet access. It made me
focus more on the moment.”
Another adjustment students must make is the transition from living on
Tuscaloosa’s campus to living in a city. Davis said navigating the
city’s transportation systems has been a new challenge for her.
Senicz said she faced similar struggles in adjusting to Havana’s city
“One of the biggest things to adjust to was living in the city,” she
said. “I grew up in a rural town, and Tuscaloosa definitely doesn’t have
a downtown feel. Taking the bus, taxis, getting food on the street –
that was all really new for me.”
Lasonczyk’s semester-long research project analyzed changes in
U.S.-Cuban relations in recent times, specifically under the Obama
administration. He said he wants people to understand that Cubans are
not necessarily hateful toward American citizens.
“If there was one thing that I wanted people to know about Cuba, it’s
that they don’t hate the United States or Americans,” he said. “They see
the U.S.-Cuban relation as a product of the actions of both governments,
not of the people of both nations.”
Source: The Crimson White | UA in Cuba offers cultural experience to