When nine Northwestern students arrived in Havana, Cuba this summer, they had no place to stay.
“Our hotel double-booked us,” Weinberg junior Anna Krist says. “We ended up staying in another hotel for two weeks before we were able to get our original reservation. [It] was an unexpected start to the summer.”
As many of the students describe their summer in Cuba, the word “unexpected” comes up often.
“It’s jarring to get off a 45-minute plane ride and be in this other world,” Krist says.
For the first time ever, Northwestern sent students to study global health, history and culture in Cuba for 10 weeks over the summer. Due to its success, the Office of the International Program Development (IPD) is renewing the program. In addition, they are adding a humanities track, offering film and literature courses, pending university approval.
“It all started about ten years ago,” Karey Fuhs, study abroad coordinator at IPD, says. “With the Obama Administration’s loosening travel restrictions to Cuba for educational purposes, we got the go ahead [to send the first students].”
While in Cuba, Northwestern students took classes from two organizations: Casas de las Americas and Instituto Pedro Kouri (IPK), both given entirely in Spanish. Weinberg junior Alex Gunn, however, says living in Cuba was a lesson itself.
“Classes were very interesting, but most of the learning, for us, occurred outside the classroom,” Gunn says. “Cuba was just an amazing place where every corner had something new to learn about.”
One aspect of Cuban life the students researched was its health care system. As one of the few remaining examples of socialized medicine, Cuba is a unique case study, especially because of its generally positive health care outcomes. It often ranks better than countries with comparable incomes in statistical evaluations of its system, a phenomenon the students focused on in their studies.
“Cuba is really poor in resources because of embargoes and mismanagement, but they’ve been able to invest in a few key areas, like health care,” Devora Grynspan, director of IPD, says. “It might look like they have no technology or no sophisticated clinics, but what they do have is preventative medicine.”
Unlike the American health care system, which has grown increasingly specialized in its approach to medicine, Cubans deal on the “town level,” with an emphasis on primary care where everyone has access to a doctor and a nurse.
“Their infant mortality rates are really, really low,” says Weinberg senior Hannah Jahnke, who researched the topic during the summer. “It almost seems fishy, because they’re even lower than the United States, but it turns out that [the government] probably is not lying about [the numbers], so we did a lot of research as to why it is that way.”
According to Jahnke, doubting the government’s truthfulness is not only common among Cubans, it’s expected.
“There’s propaganda everywhere,” Jahnke says. “For example, Fidel Castro is [probably] in bad condition, either dead or dying, but in the only newspaper, there are pictures of him meeting dignitaries around the world. The Cubans just roll their eyes.”
For Northwestern students, living in a socialist country took some acclimating.
“We could pretty much go wherever we wanted, but the biggest ‘Big Brother’ thing that we experienced was that they take your picture when you enter the country so they can track you,” Gunn says. “There were more and more subtle examples [of influences of the government], we had Cuban friends that would get in trouble for hanging out with Americans.”
To ease their adjustment, their program director and a native Cuban, Adrian Lopez-Denis, was able to arrange for their hotels, trips and classes.
“He was with the students 24/7 and in Cuba, that’s necessary,” Grynspan says. “The reason is that the infrastructure is not quite there for foreign students. He was able to smooth things over, like hire the bus and find people who could take them places.”
Seemingly simple things were not easy to get in Cuba, however. From clean laundry to cell phones to lab coats, Northwestern students learned to navigate the black market, a necessity for Cubans and foreigners alike.
“They say, ‘I got this from a friend,’ so you know they got it illegally,” Krist says.
Despite these challenges, the students were still able to take advantage of the Cuban experience, especially as a vacation destination.
“Cuba is this perfect combination of being an interesting place to study, with a really interesting culture, but also it’s a vacation spot with beautiful beaches and resorts,” Krist says. “Every weekend, we’d go to these beautiful beaches that were just unbelievable and be in the water and say, ‘I can’t believe we’re getting credit for this.’”