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Feb. 11, 2004


    OSWEGO -- When a dozen students started a study abroad experience in Cuba in early February, SUNY Oswego established one of only three comprehensive college-run semester-long programs in that country.

    Participants in Oswego's first-ever Cuban semester exchange program from Feb. 12 to June 12 at the Universidad de la Habana had to be academic achievers fluent in Spanish because of the rigorous demands of the university there, said Dr. Walter Opello, director of international education at Oswego.

    Students will take mainly social science courses and will learn more about the culture from out-of-classroom experiences. "There will be an educational tour of the island of Cuba in the first two weeks of the program," said Lizette Alvarado, the college's coordinator for programs in Latin America. Plans are to pair a Cuban student with each incoming student to serve as a guide and cultural mentor throughout the semester.

    The program's seeds were planted when Eugenio Basualdo, an associate professor of vocational teacher preparation, asked to bring two Cuban professors to speak on campus, Opello said. After speaking and meeting with members of the college community, "they proposed that we establish an exchange program at their university," Opello said.

    Creating the program in a country where the United States has an embargo meant the Office of International Education had to do "probably 10 times more than we had to do for other countries," explained Josh McKeown, Oswego's associate director for overseas academic programs. "A lot of footwork and a lot of infrastructure went into this program. Plus there's this hurdle we had to get over to convince students" to go to a place many consider off limits.

    To create one of the few such programs in Cuba, organizers had to navigate a maze of red tape, including getting a special license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Cuba also required the college to furnish an American professor to serve as a special director for Oswego's students -- an additional logistical challenge and expense -- but Basualdo was available to fill this role, Opello said.

    "The kind of student this would appeal to is the mature, politically aware student who wants to really know Cuba beyond the superficial treatment in the U.S. news media," Opello noted.

    As a result, Alvarado believes the students bound for Cuba aren't too anxious or worried. "The interview process I did with students helped them prepare for Cuba, not only linguistically but for what they will actually find in Cuba," she said.

    Despite all the political rhetoric between the countries and the challenges in establishing the program, organizers believe the experience will prove invaluable. "It's a really exciting time to be there," McKeown said.

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