GoAbroad Interview

Katie Thompson - Cuba Program Coordinator

Katie Thompson - Cuba Program Coordinator

Katie grew up in the American Midwest, and went on to study biology at Oberlin College in Ohio. After graduation, she spent time working in Costa Rica before getting her master’s degree in marine affairs at the University of Washington. Katie graduated in 2015 and has been working in marine conservation ever since. In her current role, she is in charge of coordinating all aspects of IOI Adventures’ work in Cuba. 

How did your passion for conservation come about?

I grew up in the middle of the United States, but for some reason have always been drawn to the coasts. I spent summers canoeing on rivers, traveling to national parks, and vacationing at the beach, which influenced my passion for conservation. I originally studied biology, but quickly realized conservation is about much more than the science; it involves working with people and developing successful policies, which is why I decided to study conservation policy in graduate school.

Coastal view in Cocodrilo, Cuba
On the coast of Cocodrilo, the location of IOI’s volunteer site

You lived and worked in Costa Rica before you hopped over to Cuba. What inspired you to leave life in the U.S. to move abroad?

When I was in undergrad, I studied abroad in Costa Rica and México, and fell in love with the culture and climate. After graduating, I spent a few months traveling through South and Central America, and afterwards, was fortunate enough to be awarded a fellowship to teach English in Costa Rica for a year.

I love the laidback lifestyle and slower pace of life in Latin America. Fortunately now that I’m in Miami, there is still that similar culture. Although I frequently visit Costa Rica and I’m always traveling to Cuba for work.

What first brought you to Cuba?

After studying abroad and working in Latin America, I knew I wanted to focus my graduate studies in the region. Through my master’s thesis on fisheries learning exchanges (which bring fishers together to exchange best practices to improve conservation efforts), I met one of my current bosses who organized an exchange between fishers from Cuba and Mexico. I went to work for him after graduate school, a job which led to my current position at IOI Adventures.

Scuba diver in Cocodrilo
Taking a break for a quick dive in Cocodrilo

Why do you think IOI Adventures provides a one of a kind program experience in Cuba?

The program we have developed in Cuba is something you cannot find anywhere else. Volunteers have the opportunity to visit a place that is rarely seen by outsiders and extremely unique, even in Cuba.

The small fishing village of Cocodrilo was founded by sea turtle fishermen from the Cayman Islands in 1904, so many of the houses are the original wood cabins constructed by the village’s founders. It’s amazing to see how much of the community’s culture influences their everyday life--some still speak English as their native language and they have a strong relationship with the ocean. Community members are protecting their ocean and coasts by teaching the youth about marine conservation. I can’t think of any other place in Cuba where volunteers would get such an immersive experience while being surrounded by such beautiful scenery!

What does a typical day of work look like for you?

A lot of times my work involves traveling to Cuba to visit our sites and meeting with IOI Adventures’ representatives on the ground. In Cuba, face-to-face meetings are important and little is done through email, so my trips to talk with our partners are extremely valuable (not to mention it is my favorite part!). The other part of my job is here at IOI Adventures’ headquarters in Miami, where I spend time in the office, emailing and making phone calls to develop our program.

Volunteers having lunch in Cocodrilo
Katie (third from right) enjoying lunch with volunteers in Cocodrilo

You helped IOI Adventures expand their programs to Cuba. What makes Cuba such a unique place for international experience in your opinion?

Cuba is an amazing place to visit for several reasons. First of all, the people. The people are the warmest, nicest, most humble people I have ever met. Cubans may not have many possessions, but they are extremely giving.

Second of all, the nature. Some have labeled Cuba as the last jewel in the Caribbean, because its marine environments are relatively pristine compared to the rest of the Caribbean. Part of IOI’s mission in Cuba is to work hand-in-hand with communities to help protect these unique ecosystems, and volunteers are an integral part of the conservation.

Third of all, the country’s history and culture make for a valuable learning experience. In some ways Cuba is stuck in time, but at the same time it is facing rapid changes. And finally, Cuba is safe! Cubans have great respect for international visitors, which makes for a fun and safe experience.

IOI Adventures Cuba program staff
Meeting with our long-time Cuban collaborators

How do you help participants prepare for and enjoy their time in Cuba?

I guide participants along every step of the way. I make sure they have all of the information about volunteering at our site and make sure their experience is tailored to their needs and desires, while also making sure they are helping with the local community’s needs. Logistics are a little more complicated in Cuba than in other places, so I make sure participants know where they should be and when. There are typically many questions about traveling to Cuba, so I’m here to answer all questions by participants (and all questions are good questions!).

What advice do you give participants prior to their arrival to assure them their trip will be a great success?

I advise participants to go into this experience with an open mind. Participants will likely come from countries with very different political systems than Cuba’s, which means things won’t work in the same way they are used to. I recommend people be patient and embrace this opportunity. Cubans are very welcoming and open, so feel free to ask them questions about their lives. And don’t be surprised if you get a lot of questions in return!

What do you love most about working for IOI Adventures?

I love the fact that IOI Adventures’ mission of empowering isolated communities to grow in a sustainable way influences all aspects of my job. The work I do directly benefits the community and consequently the conservation efforts there, so, while cliché, I really do feel like IOI is making a difference. Also, it makes me happy when others are able to experience beautiful Cocodrilo.