Eleni Toubanos ’16, a fiber science and apparel design major, flew to Cuba during spring break, hoping to learn about fashion trends and consumer culture on the island. What she discovered during her weeklong class trip opened her eyes to the reality of life in a Communist country.
Walking around Havana, Toubanos found the majority of stores are state-owned and too expensive to attract Cubans, who earn an average of $30 a month. At the Carlos III shopping mall in the center of the city, she noticed crowds of families eating lunch, surrounded by rows of empty stores.
“Cubans are interested in fashion and personal style, but they only have so much money to spend,” Toubanos said. “So it’s not a priority.”
Throughout the trip, Toubanos and 10 other students from the Global Citizenship course in the College of Human Ecology saw sharp contrasts with culture in the United States. Pauline Morin, senior lecturer and director of exchange programs, said she chose Cuba as the destination for the class because it challenged students to step outside their comfort zone. “Cuba is one of the only places that’s not connected to the web and the internet,” she said, “and that kind of forces students to get out of their cultural bubble and see something different. It challenges all of their assumptions about politics, economics, social policy and design.”
The class includes students from Human Ecology, the School of Hotel Administration and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and each developed a project to research in Cuba related to his or her studies. Based on these interests, the class visited museums on art and revolution, a design institute, an organic farm and a tropical biosphere in the Sierra del Rosario mountains.
For her project, Sophia Ramos ’16, a human development major planning to attend medical school, focused on the prevalence and use of natural medicine in Cuba. While the country has a widely praised medical system, it also has a long-standing shortage of medications, and Ramos wanted to determine if that was pushing Cubans to rely on natural medicine.
In her interviews with medical students, professors and pedestrians, Ramos found widespread use of natural remedies, such as herbal supplements or teas. “It’s mostly cultural,” said Ramos, a native of Colombia who served as the interpreter for the trip. “The knowledge has been passed down, and there’s a strong tradition of knowing the plants and using them.”
During the visit, the group toured the Superior Institute of Industrial Design, a university with which Morin has been working to establish a formal exchange program.
“They were very enthusiastic when we were there,” said Morin, who led the trip with Jack Elliott, associate professor of design and environmental analysis.
Arriving in Cuba four days after President Obama’s trip to the country, the students were treated warmly by the people of Havana, who were still reveling in the president’s historic visit, Morin said. While sightseeing in Havana, the students saw posters of Obama with a Cuban cigar in his pocket that said: “Cuba 2016: Yes We Came.”
“There was all this goodwill when we got down there,” Morin said. “The Cuban people are very caring and generous, and they showed a lot of that to our students.”
Although they had read several books about Cuba earlier in the semester, Ramos said traveling to the island helped her better understand the complexities of the country. “I can’t claim I completely understand Cuba and its people, but going there really strengthened my appreciation of the rich culture of Latin America and made me feel even closer to my roots as well,” she said. “It got me to think about a lot of aspects of my life. It was mind-opening, as travel always is.”
Sherrie Negrea is a freelance writer.