by Maureen Reilly, Continuing Education Extension, UW-Baraboo/Sauk County
Who could resist the opportunity to spend two weeks traveling Cuba in winteraway from Wisconsin's snow, sleet and cold temperaturesand earn three university credits at the same time? More than 20 students, both traditional and nontraditional, took advantage of such an offer from UW-Baraboo/Sauk County this past January and profited in numerous ways from the experience.
The study abroad program focusing on Cuban arts and culture allowed participants to earn credits in interdisciplinary studies through credit outreach at UW-Baraboo/Sauk County. The tour, led by dean Michael Brophy and Spanish professor Nancy Waldman, included participants from all over the United States, including Puerto Rico. About half the participants were traditional students and others were businesspeople, retired academics and nonprofit professionals.
They spent one week in Havana, where classes were held at the Ludwig Foundation, an autonomous, nonprofit public institution that promotes the work of young Cuban artists. One traveler commented, "The instruction and the people at the Ludwig Foundation were excellent and I would thoroughly recommend continuing to work with them." Participants enjoyed artist receptions, an opera performance and a baseball game. During the second week, the participants toured the Las Terrazas ecological station, saw Rio Negro, Santa Clara and Trinidad and visited beaches, churches and museums.
During the two-week excursion, participants struggled to make sense of Cuba's communist political system. At first, participants found it natural to make comparisons to life in the United States, noting what Cuba doesn't have: street vendors, crowded commercial areas, well-stocked store shelves and bustling traffic in the capital. Participants remarked on the lack of traffic and many buildings badly in need of repair, according to Waldman. But they also noticed that there was neither visible poverty nor begging, and everywhere there were musicians and friendly, open people. Cuban citizens have access to the basics: housing, education, food vouchers and complete health insurance. Initial comparisons with the United States evolved into an understanding of the effects of the U.S. embargo against Cuba, Waldman noted.
According to polls, roughly eighty percent of the Cuban people admire Castro, Che Guevara and Jos Mart and embrace communism or socialism as a valid way to equalize wealth. The other twenty percent dream of leaving and apply for the limited visas distributed by lottery each year. Many Cubans worry about the day the embargo may end and fear that cars, McDonalds, tourism, prostitution and crime will flood their country.
Says one of the tour participants, "This trip was a wonderful opportunity to see Cuba before the situation changes, and it will give me a lot to read and think about in the future."
The next study tour to Cuba is scheduled for January 2005. Environmental issues will most likely form the focus of that trip, but it is expected that the arts and culture tour will be offered again within the next couple of years.
In an ever-changing world, study abroad opportunities such as those offered by UW Colleges help Americans enrich their lives and understand those countries not so far from us, but whose ways of life are a world apart.