Cuba next destination for study abroad

Matt Moss


After over 50 years of isolation from the America-aligned world, Cuba’s shores have opened and students through Parkland’s study abroad program are going to visit the once-secluded country this spring.

Students from Parkland’s Biology 221 course will take a nine-day trip to Cuba in May. As an educational experience, the focus of the visit is to engage students in the ecology and culture of Cuba.

“In-depth guided tours, shared insights from expert guides, daily interactions with locals, regional cuisine, and live demonstrations are just some of the ways you will immerse yourself in the fascinating culture of Cuba,” reads the trip’s description on Parkland’s website. “…[D]iscuss the region’s conservation efforts, educational resources, and national identity with locals… [and] discover Cuba’s culture firsthand…”

Jody Littleton, coordinator for study abroad at Parkland, answers the question, ‘Why Cuba?’

“It’s really interesting because of its isolation; there’s still a lot of cultural aspects that have stayed the same over the years,” Littleton says. “We want to expose students to different cultures and I think this would be a fascinating culture for them to get a view [of].”

She says the idea came from Parkland counselor Dennis Cockrum. She was working to get more faculty involved with study abroad and submit ideas on potential locations.

“One of my goals was to try to encourage people to come meet with me with proposals for what they would like to do with study abroad,” she said. “I think we were at the Christmas party last year, and [Dennis] comes up to me and says, ‘I really want to go to Cuba.’”

As a result, plans were formulated to extend Parkland’s study abroad into Cuba.

Cockrum’s interest in Cuba comes from many sources from throughout his life.

“I had a family doctor that was from Cuba and he…and his family left Cuba in the sixties and left everything behind at the time Castro came to power. Then, I had a friend in Los Angeles; she and her family left Cuba. […] She always talked about fond memories, but she could never go back…because of Castro’s rule. So, that always fascinated me,” Cockrum said.

“It’s fascinating me to think that that has occurred, and just a whole another way of life [exists] so close,” he said.

Cockrum and Littleton both say there is no political message in the trip.

“For me, it’s not political; it’s wanting to go before it becomes too Americanized,” Cockrum said. “There’s good things to the culture—things that are so unique and probably work well—and they’ve managed to maintain without U.S. involvement all these years.”

On day one of the trip, Parkland’s group will fly to Florida and link up with groups from other colleges, as well as a representative from the Cuban government, who will explain the what’s-what about the country and its laws and guidelines.

“In Miami, we will meet with, actually, a representative from Cuba, and they will have to give us the guidelines: what to expect when we’re over there, how to be safe, what the government expects from us—what can we do and what can’t we do,” Littleton says.

Littleton does not expect there to be any safety issues for students. She says Parkland would not send students any place where there is a notable or exceptional safety risk.

“Parkland is really good about watching out for [safety concerns]. We keep pretty close tabs on what’s going on in the countries we’re in,” Littleton says. “I think…people should feel pretty safe. […] People are going to be together at all times. They’re not just going to let people wander off and go into some bar.”

She says Parkland cancelled a trip to Germany last year due to the Syrian migrant panic and a reported increase in crime and terroristic threats.

The Cuba trip is coordinated by and through EF Education First, or simply EF, a Switzerland-based educational company that works with institutions of learning to promote cultural exchange. As such, they help their client schools set up tours of locales relevant to their students’ studies.

EF will work with students to get their travel visas in order.

The trip is estimated to be $4,025 for each student, with a disclaimer that this number may be subject to change. Financial aid can help pay for the program.

Littleton stresses her belief that studying outside of the classroom, immersed in the environment of one’s studies, is of great benefit to the learning process.

“I think I you learn things more intensely when you see them, smell them, hear them,” she said. “I think it has a bigger impact on you—it sticks in your memory a little bit more since so many of your senses are involved. […] I’ve always thought travel was a real eye-opener.”

Over the last few years, the White House has worked to revive cordial relations with America’s cold war adversaries, Cuba being one of them. The U.S. has reopened its consulate in Havana and Cuban airports have begun receiving regularly-scheduled flights loaded with American tourists and imports, and the U.S. likewise. Study abroad programs throughout the country are taking advantage of this newfound amicability.

Cuba also has a unique ecology due to its relative isolation from the American continent proper, and Havana has placed great emphasis in maintaining its biological riches. Just beyond the island’s shores lies a remarkably-preserved coral system that is home to a diverse selection of marine life.

Its tropical forests and wetlands harbor a wide range of animal and plant species from both North and South America, plus some of its own, endemic creatures that can’t be found elsewhere.

Some conservationists are concerned with the lifting of embargoes and a renewal of trade with the U.S. that Cuba’s environment could be threatened by an increase of urban, industry, and infrastructure development prompted by American investment.

The deadline to apply for spring study abroad programs is mid-October, so those interested are encouraged to do so as soon as possible. For students to be eligible, they must be degree-seeking and taking BIO 221 next semester.

More information on the Cuba trip, and other programs offered by study abroad, can be found on Parkland’s website at Click the “Study Abroad” option under the “International Center” heading.