While most of The University of Alabama was at the beach or on a road trip, the Honors College Fellows experienced their spring break in a completely different location. This destination, once a place where Americans couldn’t travel, merges aspects of the beach, rural areas, and the city. It was Cuba.
While freshmen Fellows already have their Black Belt Experience in Marion, Alabama, Dr. Jacqueline wanted an international experience for the juniors. Three years ago, they settled on a place 90 miles off the coast of Florida.
“Because I have been going to Cuba for the past decade and found it very interesting, I suggested Cuba,” said Chip Cooper, photographer and artist in residence of the Honors College. “We went on an exploratory trip, and Dr. Morgan agreed, Cuba was the place.
The Fellows were selected because they are a group within the Honors College that devoted their time to community service and leadership. They prepare for this trip by taking classes on the history of Cuba before they arrive, the purpose of the trip being an academic exchange with the University of Havana. The team traveled with 16 juniors from a wide variety of majors, one senior student leader, and three faculty members.
“It was vital having such diverse perspectives to share experiences and conversations,” said Will Sorrell, a junior majoring in finance and economics.
The trip was intended to give the students an international experience through learning first hand and immersing in everyday Cuban lifestyle.
“It was an opportunity to study the culture, history, education and economics of Cuba with professors and students at the University of Havana,” said Matt Gillham, a junior finance and economics major.
Their Cuban journey began in the countryside, along the coast, and in the mountains, then the Fellows explored the cities and forests though guided tours, learning the history and stories that accompany the areas. The team spent the last six days at the University of Havana with lectures from professors on a wide variety of academic topics ranging from history of Cuba to future communication with the United States.
“[After lectures] we would meet and discuss our day in small or larger groups,” Cooper said. “We usually broke up into smaller groups to explore the city or the countryside to see how people live.”
Sorrell’s favorite moment in Cuba was in the town of Trinidad when he watched sunrise from a rooftop of a paladar, a restaurant run by self-employers.
“Something about watching the world come alive was very impactful on me,” Sorrell said. “Kids going to school, women and men walking to work, buses hustling down crowded streets- all in the dim glow of the same sun I rely upon every day- helped me relate to Cuba in a very unique way.”
Gillham’s favorite experience was the listening to the lectures about relations between the United States and Cuba and the Cuban economy and policies, but in addition to the lectures, Gillham also loved the hike outside of the city in a rural area.
“It was really cool to see so much untouched land,” Gillham said. “We got to interact with Havana and the people in the city but also experience what life looks like outside the city.”
Cooper’s happiest memory from this recent trip was watching the students find their rhythm in Cuba.
“It’s a Communist country where 2+ 2 = 5,” Cooper said. “Cuba is complex and often hard to understand below the surface, and when I see the brightness in their eyes trying to understand, my heart is full. Every time I go, I come back with a renewed spirit, what an incredible jewel of a country. There is music everywhere and they are living in their needs and not wants.”
Cuba has become a second home to Cooper. Through putting himself in a position to hear, as he describes it, he photographs the essence and beauty of Cuba and prints these photos of people, architecture and landscapes into books, his most recent on Havana in 2012. Cooper and Julio Larramendi traveled 10,000 miles over the course of a year for a new book about Cuba’s Campesino, or country people, which will be published in 2016.
“Campesino is a book that tells the story of the heart and soul of Cuba,” Cooper said. “These are country people who farm and live very fundamental lives. In day-to-day survival, I found them to be most incredible in their spirit for living.”
The restrictions from the embargo placed by the United States against Cuba are slowly reducing, which will open up conversations to begin a beneficial relationship between the two neighboring nations. Efforts to improve relations have already begun with the US removing Cuba from the State-sponsored terrorism list.
The Fellows’ first time to Cuba transformed some previous expectations.
“I expected poverty and complexity, but I did not anticipate the beauty,” Sorrell said. “The beauty of the community, the people, and the land was astonishing. These people love their country, and they love each other, and it’s inspiring.”
The Fellows didn’t have a typical spring break experience like most UA students, but they had the opportunity to grow in knowledge and culture, ultimately becoming ambassadors for furthering communication between Cuba and the US.
“It was interesting to see from the point of view from the people of Cuba,” Gillham said. “The general public wants an established relationship with the United States. Anytime we engaged with someone from another culture, it was cool to see the commonalities as humans, like what you enjoy and how you go about thinking.”