Exploring Cuba Through Study Abroad

Studying in Cuba: A perspective from an American
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Eric James brings us inside the country of Cuba, a forbidden country for U.S. Americans.  Take a glance inside Cuba as a student and see how education can mend a relationship between two countries.

For the past 50 years U.S. Americans could not travel legally to Cuba. For U.S. citizens, Cuba is a forbidden land rich in culture and history. Even though Cuba is only 60 miles away there has been no diplomatic relations between the two countries since 1961. U.S. companies can’t even do business in Cuba.

You can safely assume you won’t see too many U.S. citizens in Cuba, but by few numbers that is slowly changing. This story shares the experience of Eric James, a recent graduate of the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. But we’re getting slightly ahead. To fully appreciate the story we’re going to share with you about a U.S. student studying in Cuba, you need to know some history.

 Class in Session: A Short History Lesson

If you snoozed away in your history class or never had the chance to learn about the broken relationship between these two countries, you also may not realize how big of a deal it was when President Barack Obama announced in April 2011 he would lift restrictions allowing Cuban Americans to visit the country.

The history lesson can start when the U.S. got Cuba from Spain at the end of the Spanish-American war. Cuba was its own country, but the U.S. would step in when necessary. From there Fidel Castro took over the Cuban government in 1959 and started to heavily tax American goods. President Kennedy said enough and issued an embargo. Cutting off supplies was a hard pill to swallow for Cubans. The U.S. had several failed attempts on Castro’s life and in October of 1962, U.S. spies saw the Soviet Union collecting missiles in Cuba. In case you don’t know, back then the U.S. and the Soviet Union were not the closest friends on the playground. This moment known infamously to many as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Imagine nearly two weeks of major world powers face-to-face, sweating it out, waiting to see if the other would spark a nuclear war. In the end, President Kennedy agreed to pull U.S. missiles from Turkey if Russia pulled missiles from Cuba.

But the issues didn’t stop there. Many Cubans fled the island for U.S. shores declaring political asylum due to the tough economic standards. Castro even released criminals and mental-hospital patients, up to 22,000 of them landing in Florida. Castro said going back home for them was not an option. If you are a fan of the movie Scarface (1983), you understand what we’re talking about. Main character Tony Montana was a prisoner in Cuba released for U.S. shores.  Check out this clip from the movie, we warn you though, it has strong language.


It wasn’t until Hurricane Michelle in 2001 the U.S. started to supply food to Cuba and now is the country’s main food supplier. Fast forward to today with President Obama’s announcement of lifting travel restrictions for Cuban Americans, it seems things are inching to a better relationship between the countries.

Exploring the Untouched: Eric James’ Story

Eric James, Cuba
Eric James sight seeing in Cuba

“I saw so much countryside, and I’ve never been to any high populated areas except for Pittsburgh or Washington D.C.,” James explained. “Havana has more than two million residents and all the activities going on around the hotel and the surrounding area. It was interesting to see so many people packed in one area.”

The study abroad bug bit James clear back in high school when he started taking Spanish classes. Since then he knew he wanted to go to Cuba.

“They make the best cigars in the world,” James laughed. “I’m a cigar smoker. [But] I knew I would learn Spanish and immerse in the language and the culture.”

It was James’ senior year at the University of Pittsburgh Johnston when he learned about the study abroad program offered in Cuba.

“I didn’t really consider other countries,” James said. “I’ve stayed in Mexico briefly, but I wanted to go somewhere new and Cuba is off limits for many Americans and I knew I was going somewhere where there wouldn’t be any cultural obstructions with U.S. businesses. It was interesting to see a country not influenced by U.S. culture.”

And that’s exactly what James experienced. Living in Cuba, James was equipped with minimal standards compared to the United States, but way more acceptable if you compare it to Cuba standards. James explained he stayed in a small hotel of 20 rooms. There was a micofridge, air conditioning, drinkable running water and a television with U.S. based channels.

Eric James' hotel bedroom

And culture shock?

“Cuba is considered a third world country and everything we have in the [U.S.] is taken for granted,” James said. “For example, internet access is limited and you have to pay a lot. Calling home was definitely a hard thing to do. I found some expensive pre-paid cards for $20.00 (U.S.) and it lasted about seven minutes. We have so many amenities [in the U.S.] that they don’t have at all. You don’t go into a grocery store and find gallons of milk in the coolers. All they have is powdered milk and you make it with hot water. It was actually kind of disgusting.”

This just covered living conditions. James took classes at the University of Havana, one of the oldest universities in Latin America and in the Caribbean. He started off with a Spanish placement test and then signed up for four classes. Two were on campus and two off campus, one at the hotel he was staying. There wasn’t enough class room space to have all classes on campus.

“It was always 80 or 90 degrees outside,” James said. “So being in the air conditioning at the hotel was nice.”

His classes consisted of learning about Cuban films, music, history, arts, culture and the toughest class, Cuban Thought, a class he took with all Cuban students.

A group photo at the University of Havana

“I was actually kind of lost because they were so far ahead in the coursework,” James shared. “They had taken the course progressively over four years and I was playing catch up. The Cuban accent is very fast and hard to understand. I was constantly asking to repeat and trying to understand what they were saying.”

If that wasn’t the worst of it, James also had one added pressure to his language barrier. He had to work harder to prove himself.

“I was told by the one professor that accompanied us on the trip he had to actually convince the University of Havana for me to come along because my GPA wasn’t high enough,” James explained.

Another obstacle that many students think is easy, but in reality a challenge is making friends.

“I became friendly with the American students in my group,” James said. Those students included peers from New York University, University of Alabama and Princeton. “We were spread out throughout the city and didn’t have much communication though. As far as meeting Cuban students, I had few conversations with them. I did meet some local Cubans and still keep in touch, one on Facebook.”

But James explained when he would speak with Cubans, they were preoccupied with something else.

“As soon as you told them you were an American in Cuba, they thought you were a tourist and they tried to get money off of you because they think Americans are loaded with money,” James said. “Most students are from Europe or Canada. I had to explain I was studying and I wasn’t a tourist. I had several people come up to me planning to be friends or saying we met before and asking for money.”

When looking back, James said he regrets not going out as much and not getting to see as much of the culture.

Eric James, Cuba
Cuban locals playing music

“I want to get back to Cuba as soon as possible and do all the things I missed,” James expressed.

If you are a U.S. American student thinking about studying abroad in a country where English is not the first language, James said go for it.

“The best thing is to go into the situation with a completely open mind and don’t have any pre-judgments,” James advised. “Regardless of major or academic plan I recommend studying abroad. It really opens your mind and helps you think about things from another perspective. It’s the best thing I did in college. I got a feel of what life is like in Cuba.”

Life After Cuba

James graduated in April 2011 with a Bachelor of Arts in humanities degree. Just like many recent grads, James is on the job hunt.

“Definitely studying abroad opened my eyes,” James expressed. “I would want to work at a university or a company helping facilitate students going abroad. My passion is to help students experience what I experienced and seeing more places over the world.”

To learn more about how you can support U.S. Americans traveling to Cuba and to keep up on the latest updates regarding developments in Cuba, International Student Voice recommends these resources:

[ilink url=”http://www.opencuba.org/”]http://www.opencuba.org [/ilink]

[ilink url=”http://www.thehavananote.com/”]www.thehavananote.com [/ilink]

[ilink url=”http://blog.nafsa.org/2011/05/20/stories-from-cuba/”]NAFSA Blog[/ilink]


More photographs from Eric’s time in Cuba

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