Two students have rare opportunity to study in Cuba

imageTwo SUNY Oswego students are among only a handful of United States students studying in Cuba this fall.

Oswego’s Emil Christmann and Jeffrey Scott recently began the semester-long program at the University of Havana. New travel restrictions by the U.S. government, which included ceasing short-term and summer programs to Cuba, have greatly reduced the numbers of colleges and students participating, said Josh McKeown, director of study abroad and exchange programs for SUNY Oswego’s Office of International Education and Programs.

“SUNY Oswego is one of, at last count, only six U.S. colleges or universities still offering study abroad in Cuba,” McKeown said. “We are proud and pleased that our program is still operating for our students, and despite the challenges, we look forward to another excellent semester.”

Christmann, a junior English major from Oswego, appreciates the rare chance to visit an island full of history, arts and culture, despite the decades of tension between the two country’s governments.

“I’ve been wanting to study abroad since high school, and this opportunity presented itself,” Christmann said. “I wanted to work on my Spanish—I’ve had about five years of it—and I’m just really psyched to go to a new country.”

Christmann is taking two courses on Cuban history that rely heavily on field trips, plus a Spanish class through the university’s department of philosophy and history. Seeing how the Cubans view the history of the Western hemisphere should prove interesting, he said.

While the program offers special opportunities, it comes with additional challenges. The communist government is less tolerant of dissent and distrusts the U.S. government. Christmann said he was told that being seen talking to Cuban government workers or U.S. representatives can arouse suspicion. “But I’ve been told that the everyday people are very nice and upbeat,” he added.

“Given the long and sometimes difficult history between the two countries, and that Cuba is a socialist country, it makes it a really unique experience for the students,” said Lizette Alvarado, the college’s program specialist for Latin America, Spain and Italy.

Surmounting the many administrative hurdles makes participating “an enormous feather in the cap for all of SUNY Oswego,” McKeown said. Key groundwork by SUNY Oswego Professor Eugenio Basualdo and the support of college administrators have been vital, he added.

The Cuba program involves “continually facing crossroads and making sure each step is taken care of, like the license, visas, continuing communication with our Cuban counterparts about housing, health insurance, etc.,” Alvarado noted. “For the students on other programs, these things are a given. But with Cuba, I have to constantly tell students about these crossroads that come up and communicate with them that once one challenge is taken care of, another comes up.”

The challenges can make the rewards even greater, McKeown said.

Interviewed before he left Oswego, Christmann was eager for the experience. “I can’t wait to hear the music and dance,” he said. “I’ve been studying the island and practicing my Spanish, so I should be all right.”

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PHOTO CAPTION: Emil Christmann (center), a SUNY Oswego student, drums along with an Afro-Cuban musical group in Trinidad, Cuba. Christmann and Jeffrey Scott are among a very small number of U.S. residents participating in study abroad programs in Cuba.

(Posted: Sep 07, 2005)