BOONE—It’s been an on and off again experience, depending on the political winds blowing from the nation’s capital, but Cuba provides a rich educational experience for Appalachian State University students interested in topics ranging from U.S-Cuban relations and cultural history to photography and printmaking.
The most recent venture to the communist nation was a week-long program in October offered to MBA students in Appalachian’s Walker College of Business that focused on sustainability and the effects of the U.S. embargo in Cuba. Students attended lectures at the University of Havana and the University of Pinar del Rio.
The short-term study abroad program was possible following action by the Obama Administration in January that reinstated People-to-People Educational Exchanges*. It was the first study-abroad trip offered by the university since 2004 when travel permits for short-term educational programs were cancelled by the Bush Administration.
“It’s a unique opportunity for business students to see a non-capitalist economy and the problems the government encounters trying to run a country that is not driven by profit or focused on efficiency but on a different set of values,” said Dr. Martin Meznar, assistant dean for international programs in the Walker College of Business.
“We prepare business leaders, and leaders should be thinking people who look at the world from a broader perspective,” he said. “I think Cuba is one of the few places left where you can really get away from the U.S. perspective and look at things from a completely different point of view.”
Dr. David Marlett, chair of the Department of Finance, Banking and Insurance at Appalachian, was one of several faculty members who traveled to Cuba. “Professionally, the trip offered a chance to learn how a country with little resources and an immense exposure to hurricane damage functions,” he said.
Marlett said that private sector insurance probably won’t become an option in Cuba should the U.S. embargo end and insurance markets open to foreign companies as “most dwellings are in such disrepair they would not be insurable by the private sector.”
Educational opportunities in Cuba first began at Appalachian in 2001 with a Department of History summer study abroad program that focused on U.S., Cuban and Latin American relations. The success of that program and the contacts made with educators at the University of Havana and elsewhere led to a technical photography program offered through the Department of Technology and Environmental Design. It ran in 2002 to 2004.
Appalachian also hosted two Cuban artists for a semester in 2004 from La Fototeca.
With reinstatement of the short-term educational permits, Appalachian photography instructor Lambert “Pac” McLaurin will lead a two-week study abroad program for photography students in late December and early January 2012. Students will meet and work with prominent Cuban photographers and attend workshops at La Fototeca, Cuba’s national photography archive.
“I think that the experience introduces students to a place that is both unknown and foreboding and also teaches them not to judge people by the place they live or how they dress,” McLaurin said. “Learning to approach people in a strange place, not speaking their language, and getting permission to photograph them can be stressful. It certainly makes the student photographer mature. Cuba and Havana have to be among the most photogenic locations in our hemisphere. I hear from students several years after the trips that they considered it a life-changing experience.”
Student Bradley K. Oxford’s perspective of the Walker College Business’ trip is similar to that of past students who have traveled to the Caribbean country. “The best part of our trip was the warmth and hospitality of the Cuban people. People from our hotel receptionists, to waiters, to people on the street all asked if we enjoyed Cuba, if we were well fed and if everyone had treated us well. We experienced the rich history of Havana and the beauty of the Cuban country side. Every day was an adventure,” the MBA student wrote.
Dr. Renee Scherlen from the Department of Government and Justice Studies also is planning a short-term study abroad program in May 2012 focusing on comparative politics and contemporary Cuba. The program is still recruiting students.
“The relationship with Cuba as it stands is going to change eventually,” Meznar said. “If our students are familiar with Cuba, they will be a step ahead of everybody else when that change starts occurring.”
* Presumably they were using the general license available for higher education institutions that give credit toward graduation and not a people to people license.