Being both a Political Science and a Spanish major, I wanted to go with a program that would challenge me on both fronts. I wanted a Spanish program that was rigorous, but I also wanted to go to a culture that was as different from my own as I could think of. Cuba was just starting to open up at the end of the Obama administration, and there was something mysterious about the island. All I knew about it was Castro and the Buena Vista Social Club, but I wanted to learn more.
Why did you choose Spanish Studies Abroad?
Spanish Studies Abroad struck me as the program that took learning the language most seriously. They had a "Spanish only" rule that appealed to me, and I was able to satisfy upper-level credits at my school, Temple University.
What was your favorite part about Cuba?
Definitely the people. Everyone was so friendly and wanted to engage when they found out we were Americans. They wanted to ask us about Miami and New York and politics and hip-hop. I remember a million long conversations with strangers at art events, or my classmates dancing salsa with locals in restaurants.
What made your experience abroad unique?
Cuba is on the cusp of some very big changes that have the potential to reorder the way their society functions. People are understandably devoted to aspects of their way of life, but the energy and hope I felt there in 2016 was intoxicating.
How did local staff support you throughout your program?
We had two main point people, an American man with the program, Dave, and a Cuban woman, Marta María. Both of them were incredibly helpful, whether it was navigating the bureaucracy at the Universidad de la Habana, or helping us prepare a meal for our host families. Marta María even opened her home to us some evenings, so we could watch Telesur or play dominoes.
What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I had more time! I went for a summer program, which is only four weeks. If I could do it over again I would do it for a semester.
Describe a typical day in the life of your program.
We would wake up and have breakfast with our host families. Weekdays, we would go to school from 9:00-1:00. After that we would either have free time to explore and an evening activity, or an afternoon activity and free time in the evening. The activities could be cultural, historical, or artistic outings. They took us during our first week to La Fábrica, which is a former cooking oil factory converted into a very cool art space, with music on one level and visual art on another. We ended up going back there a few times.
What did you enjoy doing in your free time?
My roommate and I were well matched. We both really like jazz, and went out to this local club called La Zorra y El Cuervo a couple of nights. We brought along some of the other students in our class.
What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?
It was a very nice house in the Vedado, a middle-class neighborhood near parks and the university. My roommate and I had a private bathroom, which I appreciated, and the house had a beautiful, lush back patio where we would have a drink sometimes after dinner.
What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?
Bring an umbrella! It's tropical, so pop-up rain showers are pretty common, especially in summer.
What was the hardest part about studying abroad?
The hardest part about studying abroad was not the culture shock going there, but the reverse culture shock coming back. I was only gone for a month, but returning to the States I constantly had to ask myself: Is that how we do things here? And better yet: Why?
What surprised you most about Cuba?
I was actually expecting a little bit of hostility from some quarters, being an American. But even those who had a bone to pick with US policy could not have been nicer to me or my group on a personal level. And anyway, most of the Cuban teens and 20-somethings we met just wanted to ask us about New York or Miami or hip-hop, or whatever show they'd seen a pirated season of.
What is one thing you wish you would have known before studying abroad in Cuba?
It's kind of silly, but it's really not. One thing I wish I'd known before traveling is how difficult it would be to track down replacement toiletries. Toothpaste isn't a problem, but if there's a specific deodorant or contact solution you like, forget it.
If you could study abroad again, where would you go?
I would want to continue traveling in Latin America to work on my Spanish. Ecuador is on my list, for sure.
What do you feel the biggest benefit of studying abroad is?
The biggest benefit to me of studying abroad is the connection that you end up feeling for a place. It becomes part of you. You end up thinking of the people you met and the music you heard and the streets you walked down, and it works its way into your everyday existence back home. For me, I've used my time abroad in Cuba as the jumping off point for projects in Political Science at my university, including one I'm working on now as a senior project.
Do you have any packing tips for individuals headed to Cuba?
Bring something for your host siblings, if you have any. Baseball's big there, so if your hometown has a baseball team, some merch will go a long way to making friends with your host brother or sister. And usually, they're the best people to ask for local night spots and things to do in your evenings. My roommate and I ended up hanging out with our host brother, Omar, more than anyone, going to clubs and walking along the Malecón.
Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?
Well, for one, it improved my Spanish immensely. I feel much more confident speaking up in class or holding a conversation. It also opened me up politically. I am pretty left-wing, so I always used to hear this and that about Cuba. Seeing the successes and failures of the Revolution, nearly sixty years on, was a worthwhile experience. A splash of realism is always helpful.
Would you recommend Spanish Studies Abroad to others? Why?
Oh, absolutely. The staff are great, the host families are the friendliest, and Havana is an exciting, cosmopolitan city. It's only 90 miles from Florida but it feels like another world sometimes, until you catch yourself referring to your host family's house as "home."
Benjamin Winkler is a senior Political Science and Spanish student at Temple University in Philadelphia. Benjamin’s non-academic interests include checking out local bands, going to art galleries, and baseball.