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As seen in Transitions Abroad Magazine January/February 2005
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Studying Abroad in Mexico and Cuba

For an Immersion Experience, Let Go of Preconceptions

By Anna Laird Barto

Restored cathedral in Cuba
Restored cathedral in old Havana. Photo by Lies Ouwerkerk.

I remember wandering around the study abroad fair at my university, wondering if my shy freshman self could ever join the ranks of the worldly travelers who manned the information booths, brimming over with their starry-eyed tales of intercultural understanding. Five years and two study abroad programs later, I can say that studying abroad was the most important thing I've done in my life. I can also say that this is true in spite of, or perhaps because of, the fact that my experiences were nothing like my expectations.

In the summer of 2003 I participated in the Univ. of Wisconsin study abroad program in Oaxaca, Mexico, a small city known worldwide for its colorful culture. For me, the biggest appeal of this program, aside from the location, was the chance to live with a Mexican host family. According to program literature, they would welcome us with outstretched arms, and include us in all their activities.

This was not exactly my homestay experience, nor that of the majority of the 20 students in my program. This isn't to say that my host family was unpleasant or inhospitable in any way. They treated me with the businesslike courtesy of a good bed and breakfast operation, but I never felt like part of the family. The family was also hosting two other American students from different programs. Their Spanish was as rudimentary as mine, and we fell into the habit or speaking English to each other at home.

In spite of the fact that the host family experience did not meet my expectations, I still felt embraced by Mexican society. I was befriended by the girls who worked in the food and magazine stalls I passed on my way to school. I spent evenings with them behind the counter, helping them with their English homework and playing with their kids while the monsoon rains pounded on the tin roofs. I also was adopted by my Spanish conversation partner's family, who invited me to their home: a stucco shack on a steep mountainside overlooking the city, where they prepared me a meal of chapulines (fried grasshoppers) and taught me the steps to traditional dances. If I had been closer to my host family I do not know that I would have had the chance to develop these other relationships.

The drawback of the Oaxaca program was that we took all our classes with fellow program participants instead of with Mexican students. However, the Cultural Institute of Oaxaca compensated for this by providing small classes (one of my classes only had two other students) and personable, native-speaking instructors. This was ideal for a student such as myself who was too shy to participate in the large, formal language classes of my university. On the downside, we spoke a lot of English between classes as we sat in pig-skin chairs in the Institute's garden and sipped their locally grown coffee.

All told, I wouldn't change a thing about my study abroad experience in Oaxaca, except that I wish it had been longer. A testament to this is that after graduation I returned there to teach English.

In the spring of my senior year at Wisconsin, I was lucky to be one of the last American students to study at the Univ. of Havana before Bush suspended student visas. I took part in a program organized by the Institute for Study Abroad (IFSA) at Butler Univ. What set the IFSA program apart from other study abroad programs in Havana was that it offered students full immersion in classes with Cuban students. The obvious drawback was that while we were immersed in the classroom, Cuban law forbids American students from living with Cuban hosts families.

The classroom immersion was indeed valuable, but not in the ways I expected. I naively assumed that the Cuban professors would be gratified by our presence in their classroom and eager for a cross-cultural exchange. While in some cases this was true, for the most part the professors viewed us with suspicion, as if we were tourists. It is easy to forget your second language when your professor is squinting at you disapprovingly and cupping his hand to his ear.

But I learned a lot about the Cuban education system. I heard professors tout the benefits of the democratic Cuban election process with straight faces and others defend Castro with careful wording belied by the doubt in their eyes. I heard many just criticisms of my own country and other far-fetched ones. I became accustomed to long waits at the library and having to share the scarce, yellowed copies of Soviet-era books with a dozen classmates. I learned to write papers while carefully weighing my opinions against the political agenda we were expected to internalize. I learned to navigate this system thanks to the patient help of my wonderful Cuban classmates, who went out of their way to make sure I didn't get lost.

Although I did eventually forge some close friendships, for me this was more difficult than in Mexico. In Cuba there exist even greater economic barriers between the international students and Cuban students. Most Cubans live within the peso economy, while foreigners thrive in the dollar economy. This means they tend to frequent different eating and entertainment establishments. Another problem is police harassment, since Cuban authorities usually assume that any Cuban socializing with a foreigner, especially a black Cuban with a white foreigner, is a jinetero/a or prostitute. It is also sometimes unsafe to assume that a Cuban friend is not a jinetero. A few jineteros frequent the university posing as students so that they can meet foreigners for food, money, or clothing. And can you blame them? The average Cuban makes less than $100 a year, and it is common knowledge that their government food rations are not adequate.

Cuban friends were not allowed inside the hostel where I lived with other IFSA Butler students because of problems with theft. The security guards at the hostel sometimes threatened to have our Cuban friends arrested for socializing with us on the front steps.

In spite of these challenges, I would do it again. My Spanish may not have improved much, but I experienced so much that I wouldn't trade. For example, sitting on the sea wall and imagining what it would be like to set forth in a small raft into those dark waters, listening to youths singing and playing percussion with their bare hands on the back seat of a crowded bus, or marching from the university to the Plaza de la RevoluciĆ³n at 3 a.m. to find a good spot to see Fidel.

What would I say now, if I were seated at one of those booths at the Study Abroad Fair?

I would say that expectations absolutely affect your study abroad experience. Because my experience in Oaxaca was so life changing, when I arrived in Cuba I couldn't help comparing everything to Mexico, usually unfavorably. I finally started to appreciate Cuba when I let go of those expectations and comparisons. Every place has its own unique magic if you look for it.

I would also say that the immersion experience can be elusive. You may not find it in your homestay or in your university, but if you let go of your expectations, it will find you.

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