The Fall 2013 voyage‚Äôs students, faculty and staff were greeted with much fanfare and open arms by Cuba, its people and the University of Havana when the MV Explorer docked at the country‚Äôs port for the first time since 2004.
The three-day visit began with a welcome ceremony, during which the shipboard community, en masse, walked together up the main alma mater steps of the Univ. of Havana to the tune of John Lennon‚Äôs ‚ÄúImagine‚Äù.
For several of the older faculty and staff, the event moved them to tears. ‚ÄúCuba, more than any other country that we visited, brings home to me that when you visit a place it‚Äôs easy to just see one side or one aspect. Hearing the song, listening to its lyrics, it‚Äôs hopeful of what could be for the future,‚Äù said Nancy Seldin, one of the voyage psychologists. Seldin has visited Cuba three times in the past decade, most recently in 2011 for an educational trip before this 2013 voyage.
At the top of the stairs the Fall 2013 voyagers were greeted by Univ. of Havana officials and were introduced to the university and its students by the Fall 2013 voyage deans, Exec. Dean Nick Iammarino and Academic Dean Kathy Thornton. Dean Nick referenced the now famous handshake between U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro and the coming together of the U.S. and Cuban students and faculty.
‚ÄúThe Cubans were so welcoming and so happy to have us there and there were real relationships formed,‚Äù Dean Nick said.
The voyage‚Äôs visit to the country was filled with wonderful exchanges between the Cuban, U.S. and international students studying aboard the MV Explorer. From a visit to the Bay of Pigs to bonding over baseball (and a collective wave by U.S. and Cuban students) to the walks through neighborhoods while talking about their lives in Cuba and the U.S., the visit was a true cultural exchange.
‚ÄúThe love we received from the Cubans for neighbors and strangers, like us, has been a thread through my Semester at Sea experience,‚Äù said Meredith Carey, who attends Southern Methodist University.
During a field program that brought students to one of Havana‚Äôs barrios for an exchange, Carey and her fellow voyagers visited two community centers that a part of Todos de Los Manos, a neighborhood organization working to improve a neighborhood suffering from violence, alcoholism and poor construction of housing.
‚ÄúThe barrio exchange field program gave me a chance to talk with Cubans in their own neighborhood about their successes and works-in-progress that will serve to improve the lives of hundreds of Cubans, young and old,‚Äù Carey said.
Several of the students on the ship are of Cuban descent and the visit for them was as much personal as it was educational. For some, they were the first in their family to visit Cuba since their grandparents fled with their infant parents or since their parents fled to the U.S. or other countries. For others, it was a trip back in several decades in the hope of seeing family members.
‚ÄúMy father was born in and grew up in Cuba and left in the 1980s via Venezuela where I was born,‚Äù said Raul Jimenez, a senior at Univ. of Michigan. ‚ÄúMy dad has always wanted me to go to Cuba and see where he grew up, but he didn‚Äôt want to force me. So, this was the first time that I was going to Cuba, and the first time I can connect with where my dad is from and where my ancestry is from. I was really excited to get as deep in to the culture as possible.‚Äù
During one afternoon, more than 400 SASers traveled to Almendares to take in a Cuban baseball game, sharing the stands with the Cuban students who had been showing the SAS students around the University of Havana campus the day before. After the game, SAS students joined their Cuban peers to rush the field, run the bases, and lay out in centerfield.
Prof. Tom Coburn summed up the experience in Cuba as an ‚Äúaffirmation that young people can see beyond the constraints of politics to see solidarity that many of us knew in the 1960s and is re-enforced as an ever-present possibility.‚Äù
Editor’s Note: Although the Fall 2013 voyage has returned to Fort Lauderdale there are still many stories to tell. This is the first of several blog posts about Cuba including podcasts, photos and videos. Keep checking the blog to read student reflections of the Fall 2013 50th anniversary voyage as well.