Twenty-five Brookdale students, community members and faculty leaders returned this month from a week-long study abroad program in Cuba, the first ever offered by Brookdale since the college’s founding in 1967.
The historic trip, offered as part of five Summer I courses in art, architecture and history, was made possible by a newly enacted “normalizing of relations” between the U.S. and Cuba and an elimination of travel bans that have prevented most Americans from traveling to the Caribbean nation for the past 56 years.
During an informal “Adventure Sharing Session” in the Student Life Center on June 21, many of the returning study abroad participants joined students returning from a week-long trip to Iceland to discuss their experiences and share the lessons they had learned in the developing, communist country.
“What you thought you knew, you don’t know,” said Bobbie Minervini, a Shrewsbury resident who has attended three previous Brookdale study abroad programs. “Our preconceptions about Cuba are certainly not what we saw. The most amazing thing, to me, was in the Capitol building, where they had a statue of Abraham Lincoln. That really surprised me. Many of the things are impossible to describe.
“The things on the walls, the revolution museum – there was too much to absorb,” she added. “I don’t think you could learn those kinds of lessons in a classroom setting. You have to be there to experience the cultural differences in the last 50 or 60 years. We had a fantastic guide who who explained the pros and cons of living in Cuba, and there are many.”
The students, who traveled with art Professor Tony Blaser, interior design Professor Patricia Blaser and history Professor Jess LeVine, toured numerous local sites and met with a wide range of Cuban residents as part of a “people-to-people exchange program,” which allowed participants to exchange ideas and immerse themselves in Cuban culture and history.
Some, like Brookdale student Melissa McCarthy, were struck by the nation’s poverty, which has given rise to a culture of resourcefulness and appreciation found in the art that adorns most establishments and the 1960’s classic cars that continue to prowl the streets today, retrofitted with tractor engines, spare parts and even couches. Even in kitchens, she said, Cubans find creative and beautiful ways to make the most of the limited resources at their disposal.
“There is this appreciation for everything,” said McCarthy. “It was an eye-opener for us. They are happier than everyone here.”
Brookdale student Brendan McAvoy, who studied history and U.S./Cuban relations on the trip, said he was struck by the differing opinions among Cubans regarding political discourse, and the growing willingness of residents to criticize their government.
“On our final night there we visited an art club where the rum was flowing and people were able to express themselves, and I was able to see what some of the people really thought,” he said.
“They were openly calling out the leaders of the government. It was interesting to see this new community and these freedoms that are emerging in Havana. It was a really great experience to be able to see a country in transition like that, to sort of be able to see history come alive.”
Those sentiments were shared by students and faculty leaders alike. Speaking at the end of the sharing session, Levine threw water on the idea that “Cuba is going to be destroyed” by American capitalism in the coming years. Cuba, he said, is finally coming into its own. Brookdale interior design student Sharon Turner-Hinton agreed, saying she was overcome by the beauty, ingenuity and genuine optimism she saw during her trip.
“You’re under the impression that all of these people just want to jump in a boat and come over here, and that’s not true,” she said. “They love where they are. Despite the fact that we perceive them to be living a hard life – and compared to us they are, to some degree – they still live a happy, appreciative life. Everywhere you saw love, you saw kindness, you saw laughter, beautiful art, beautiful music – it was just a phenomenal experience. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
The sharing session also featured testimonials by some of the 15 students and community members who studied abroad in Iceland as part of their Summer I English classes at Brookdale.
The participants, along with Brookdale Humanities Institute Dean Carl Calendar and assistant English Professor Margaret Natter, toured local museums, lagoons, caves, waterfalls, rock formations, churches, government buildings and other sites, which they were tasked with writing about after they returned home.
From the breathtaking views to the abundant city life, from the diverse cuisine to the surprisingly balmy weather, the students said Iceland was shockingly different from what they had expected. Joseph Guth, who studied abroad as part of his English 295 summer course, said described the trip as a life-changing experience.
“A few of us decided to climb up this mountain right next to a waterfall, delaying the whole group, but it was so worth it with that incredible view,” he said. “That experience, that feeling, that one moment – it was just completely amazing.”
Also in attendance at the sharing session were Brookdale International Education Center (IEC) Director Janice Thomas, IEC administrative assistant Anna Flood and IEC faculty liaison Kelsey Maki.
Click here to learn more about Brookdale’s Study Abroad programs, which are open to both students and community members.