As improved U.S.-Cuba relations make individual travel easier, study abroad worth it, faculty and students say

Caleb Wong

President Barack Obama touched ground in Cuba on Sunday, marking the first time a sitting president has visited Cuba since 1928.

But countless scholars, students, journalists and other people traveling with visas from the U.S. have visited Cuba before the president’s historic visit ­— and through Obama’s executive actions, the categories of people able to visit the island will increase, widening opportunities for U.S. citizens to visit Cuba. 

Since 2014, UT students have been able to travel to Cuba through a study abroad program organized by the International Office that runs during the Maymester from May to June. Students and faculty involved in the program said studying abroad in Cuba with an academic program provides a deeper understanding of the island nation, nicknamed “the Pearl of the Antilles,” than merely going as a tourist. 

“One of the things we want students to do is not to live in a cocoon or a bubble, which can happen when you are a foreigner in Cuba, and the way to do that is to use the services that people in Cuba use,” said César Salgado, associate Spanish and Portuguese professor and the first faculty leader of the study abroad program.

While based primarily in the city of Havana, the program takes students on excursions to cultural sites such as museums and historical landmarks accompanied by local scholars. Salgado said the Cuban scholars’ knowledge adds context to visiting museums and landmarks of Cuba that ordinary tourists wouldn’t have access to. Admission to the program is also competitive; program coordinator Dan Siefken said 18 to 20 students are accepted from a applicant pool of 30 or more students. 

“[The interview process] requires students to have a bit more understanding of the culture and the coursework prior to even being accepted into the program,” Siefken said. 

Before traveling to Cuba, students accepted into the program must take a course focusing on the country’s cultural and political history that extends beyond America’s limited interactions with Cuba.

“We’re not fixated on Castro,” Salgado said. “The program wants to look at the complexity of Cuban culture and history. Certainly, the revolution is very important to it, but we look beyond it, and there are people in Cuba who support that. 

Salgado said Cuba has a rich museum culture that sheds light on the full spectrum of Cuban history, including the colonial period before the revolution. 

“We are basically still a time travel machine. We move across different periods in Cuba and Cuban arts by focusing on different monuments and different museums and different spaces,” Salgado said. “We want to give a sense of the overall arc of Cuban history by making sure that each of these periods are well-represented.” 

Omar Gamboa, a UT graduate who participated in the 2014 Cuba Maymester, said the program showed him an intellectual side to Cuba that isn’t present in American stereotypical representations of the island. 

“Before I had ever studied Cuba, my perception of the country was unfortunately influenced by the mainstream — the Elián Gonzalez controversy, Scarface, and textbooks’ recounting of the missile crisis,” Gamboa said via email. “Once I left Cuba, I realized it is a struggling country with an intelligent citizenry, one that continues to make advances and looks forward to warming relations with U.S. neighbors.”