GoAbroad Interview

Shannon Bernardo - Program Manager, Chile, Cuba, Scotland, & Spain

Shannon Bernardo - Program Manager, Chile, Cuba, Scotland, & Spain

Shannon began working for Arcadia’s College of Global Studies in 2012, bringing with her a bachelor’s degree from Temple University and a semester worth of inspiration studying abroad in Spain. Since she joined the Student Services team at Aradia, Shannon completed her master’s degree at Arcadia, which has consequently helped her connect with student experiences on an even deeper level. In her position as program manager, she advises students from application to pre-departure preparations for programs based in Chile, Cuba, Scotland, and Spain.

What attracted you to the job opportunity as program manager for Arcadia University?

After I returned from my own study abroad experience in Spain, I began working as a peer advisor for Temple University’s Education Abroad office. During my reflections on my experience, I realized that there were entire teams of people who helped support my experience and that study abroad was a field with multiple career paths that I could pursue.

I began my tenure at The College of Global Studies on the Institutional Relations team, and through that position, I was able explore the roles of other teams in the organization. When I worked with Student Services, I knew that I felt most passionate about advising students and supporting them through the pre-departure process. As a program manager, I get to do exactly that, and work with students from all over the United States.

Woman on a riverboat on the Mekong River in Vietnam
On a riverboat along the Mekong River, Vietnam

What international experiences of your own have helped you in your current role?

My own study abroad experience has informed my advising approach for students. I remember exactly what it was like to feel anxious, excited, and terrified, all at once, prior to leaving, and relying on the expertise of advisors and program staff to help me navigate the experience. I want to act as that guiding presence for my own students, and let them know that I’ve been through it, too.

I have also been very fortunate to participate in site visits to most of the program locations I advise here. These experiences have helped me to better advise students, as I can physically see and experience the location as a student on our program would do. I can speak about the máquina system in Cuba, the ScotRail system in Scotland, and how to plan your day around the Spanish siesta all from personal experience.

Why do you enjoy working in international education most?

I enjoy working in international education because of the connections it helps me create with students. In my role, I am able to cultivate relationships with students over the course of several months and learn more about their individual goals for study abroad. Personally, I find it rewarding to help students think critically about what they hope to gain from studying abroad, and do my part to prepare them for an experience in which they can accomplish their goals.

Black and white photo of a woman on a tour of Old Havanna, Cuba
Bus Tour of Old Havana, Cuba

How do you help ensure students truly immerse in the local culture and way of life during their time studying abroad in Cuba?

We tackle immersion from a few standpoints in Cuba. First, our students all live together in a residence that is owned and maintained by a local Cuban family. The students and residence personnel get to know each other quite well throughout their time in Cuba, because they see each other every single day. Their relationships allow students to better understand life in Havana for Cuban citizens and their families, while following the Cuban schedule, eating Cuban food, and watching Cuban television.

Second, our program structure helps students immerse themselves in student life. Our students take two electives at the University of Havana, studying right alongside local Cuban students, and joining clubs, sports teams, and study groups.

Third, we encourage students to participate in our Co-Curricular Learning Certificate, or CLC, opportunity. The CLC is an optional part of the program that promotes learning outside of the classroom. Students who spend 15 hours or more investigating a topic of their choosing related to life in Cuba and create a culminating project demonstrating their learning are awarded a CLC. We include the CLC as part of an Arcadia transcript and help students understand how to use their CLC as a way of contextualizing their experience abroad in postgraduate applications and interviews.

Finally, our resident staff purposefully organize events and excursions that promote immersion in Cuban culture, which include everything from attending outdoor art exhibits and music concerts to salsa dance lessons, and more!

Woman at Platform 9 ¾ in England
Off to Hogwarts at Platform 9 ¾ , England

What specific excursions do you encourage students to go on while studying abroad in Cuba?

Programs at Arcadia have intentionally included excursions that students participate in during their time abroad. In Cuba, these excursions can take many forms. We have local excursions we encourage students to do, such as seeing live music performances and guided tours of the city of Havana. Other excursions are embedded into our courses, such as the Bay of Pigs excursion, as part of our core course on Cuba-U.S. relations. We also organize overnight excursions for semester students to other parts of the island, such as Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba. All of our excursions promote cultural engagement for our students, whether it be through music, art, history, or other relevant frames.

Beyond the Arcadia-organized excursions, we encourage students to explore Cuba on their own, in consultation with our resident director. Previous students have explored the Sierra Maestra mountains, from which Fidel Castro planned part of his revolution. Other students have organized their own excursions to Santiago de Cuba to explore Cuban life on the eastern part of the island and compare it to their experience in Havana. Exploration is a natural part of study abroad and in Cuba we support the curiosity of our students, in whatever form it may take, while keeping their safety and security as our highest priorities.

Why is studying abroad in Cuba through Arcadia unique from studying abroad through other programs?

I think there are two main characteristics that set our program apart: our program structure and our student support. Our program is a perfect blend of academic structures for our students. Arcadia students have an exclusive core course on Cuba-U.S. relations taught by leading experts in the field at the University of Havana. Students then also have a Spanish language course, taken alongside all other non-native Spanish speakers. Finally, our students round out their schedule with elective courses at the University of Havana in a diverse range of subjects. The elective courses are full-immersion, so our students can have an authentic Cuban undergraduate experience. The blend of courses exposes our students to three distinct academic frames and helps them integrate into student life at the university.

Our student support is our other outstanding characteristic. With Arcadia, students can work with program representatives to identify the best program for them. Once students have chosen a program, they work with a program manager, like me, to help them with everything from ordering a transcript to figuring out the best phone plans abroad. In-country, students have the 24/7 support of our overseas staff who provide a comprehensive orientation and consistent guidance during their time abroad.

Chichen Itza, Mexico
Exploring Chichen Itza, México
At Arcadia, we work very hard to ensure students have all of the information and advice that they need to be set up for success abroad.

What is your best piece of advice for students considering study abroad in Cuba?

Be patient - living and studying in Cuba can be both challenging and rewarding, and having patience is key to a successful experience. This means patience with how things work (or don’t work) in Cuba, but also having patience with yourself. Adjusting to a new country, culture, and language has its peaks and valleys, and being patient with yourself helps students to be patient with challenges and frustrations that come up.

Do you have any new program components or activities in the works for 2017 to expand on Arcadia’s program experience in Cuba?

We are currently working on expanding volunteer opportunities in Cuba. Our students can explore opportunities through the student union at the University of Havana, such as volunteering at an orphanage. We plan to have additional opportunities available to students interested in areas such as art, music, entrepreneurship, sustainability, and more!