Havana Good Time in College

The U.S. and Cuba are poised to restore diplomatic relations, which may lead to big shifts in higher education.

A record-high 289,000 U.S. college students studied abroad during the 2012-13 school year, a little more than half of them in Europe. They went to places like the United Kingdom, Italy, and Spain—countries that accounted, collectively, for about a third of the students. Another 20,000 or so students jetted off to China or Japan. Australia was another relatively popular destination, as was Costa Rica. And it’s hardly surprising; these places have been the top academic destinations among college students in the country for at least the last decade.

But one country that would’ve never ranked even remotely high on the list? Cuba.

That might seem obvious. Few Americans have had the opportunity to travel to Cuba legally since the U.S. imposed a travel embargo in the early 1960s. But now that the countries are poised to restore diplomatic relations, it’s worth thinking about how the college experiences of students in both places—and the knowledge bases to which they contribute—might change. Increased academic exchange and people-to-people interactions, scholars say, would even help the two countries repair their relationship going forward.

In December, President Obama announced that he and his Cuban counterpart, Raul Castro, had decided to improve ties following a half-century of strained relations that date back to Cuba’s communist revolution in the 1950s and were shaped by the Cold War. One of the most obvious examples of that hostility is America’s 54-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, an economic ban that has obstructed the island’s development and helped prolong the estrangement of two countries just 90 miles apart. This "blockade" has effectively barred U.S. citizens from traveling to the island, save some exceptions and loopholes, and created similar obstacles for their Cuban counterparts. Cuba is the only country to which U.S. law prohibits citizens from traveling as tourists, though Americans students have for years been allowed to study abroad on the island under strict circumstances.

These restrictions have loosened over the years—and the flow of people between the two countries has increased slightly—but the nations’ new promises signal not only the modernization of Cuba’s economy and technological infrastructure, but also a historic turning point in the entire international landscape. In his December 17 announcement, Obama said the U.S. would open an embassy in the Caribbean country for the first time since the revolution. Some other changes are already happening on the administrative side: The White House is implementing new, more-lenient remittance and travel policies, for example. News reports suggest that talks last week between the Obama and Castro administrations were encouraging, but the reconciliation process will likely be gradual. And it’s up to Congress whether to lift the embargo—legislation to which many Republicans in Congress, including the Cuban-American Senator Marco Rubio, are unwilling to commit.

Opportunities in the U.S. for studying abroad on the island have expanded since Obama assumed office in 2008 and started a process of gradually relaxing the restrictions. In 2011, he established specific circumstances under which travel to the communist nation would be allowed. Under the 2011-era rules, as long as the trips complied with specific academic criteria, only a "general license"—rather than a "special license"—from the federal government was required for travel to Cuba.

But the remaining regulations still made logistics tricky—and living in Cuba was still rough, at least for American students accustomed to certain luxuries. For one, U.S. citizens couldn’t open bank accounts or use credit cards in Cuba, meaning students had to travel there with a wad of cash. Then, there’s the technology issue. Though Cuba has some Internet, it’s one of the least-connected countries in the world, which can be especially problematic in an academic setting (and for American students who don’t speak Spanish and must rely on hard-copy or offline translators). And despite the intellectual vigor at some of Cuba’s universities, they, like other entities on the 43,000-square-mile tropical island, have extremely shoddy infrastructure. That means no air conditioning in the classrooms. There are also other issues, including the censorship of materials such as books.

But experts indicate the new chapter could be most momentous for Cuban students, largely because of the travel exceptions already afforded to American students. Despite widespread English proficiency, Cubans have been held back in their home country and the financial barriers exacerbated by U.S. policy. According to Allan Goodman, the CEO and president of the Institute of International Education, while roughly 1,600 U.S. students studied abroad in the communist nation last year, just about 70 of their Cuban counterparts did the reverse.*

"If we’re ever going to build mutual understanding it needs to be two ways, and having diplomatic relations greatly facilitates that," Goodman said. "The neat thing is that Cuba is so close—it is our neighbor—but we’ve been in an estranged relationship for a long time. Just having more more educational exchange is going to help close a chapter in the Cold War, help close a chapter of hostility, and open a different future for Cuban students, their families, and Americans.

"I hope the numbers will grow," he said. "But I really hope they grow both ways."

The U.S. offers Cubans—and Cuba offers Americans—a context for learning they probably couldn’t get elsewhere in the world, in part because of the circumstances surrounding the countries’ diplomatic history. American universities, for example, are known for their student diversity and in-depth lab research and have institutionalized resources all but unavailable in Cuba, such as high-speed Internet. Meanwhile, those in Cuba—including the prestigious, centuries-old University of Havana—have first-hand access to churches established by some of the earliest Spanish colonizers and one of the world’s most untouched coral reefs. They also have a reputation for breeding and exporting hordes of doctors, in large part thanks to the country’s socialized health-care system.

They could also offer unique lessons about the intricacies of the Cuban Revolution and the realities (and myths) of a political ideology that continues to captivate the American imagination and underpin Cubans’ everyday lives. Imagine taking a course in Cuba on economics. As Ana Lopez, a Cuban immigrant who oversees Tulane University’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute, noted, it’s perhaps the only place in the world where one can learn dialectical materialism, the Marxist conception of reality.

Most importantly, studying abroad to a place that’s been misrepresented in and mistreated by one’s home country has inherent rewards. "For us to have an informed citizenry in the U.S., for us to be open to multiple cultures, multiple languages, multiple ways of living in the world—whether it’s Cuba or Mongolia or the United Kingdom—students will always benefit from on-the-ground opportunities to live side-by-side with people of another country," said Sonia Feigenbaum, who oversees international affairs at Brown University, one of the various U.S. universities that have existing Cuba-abroad programs. "One viewpoint isn’t necessarily the only viewpoint that’s acceptable. To influence change positively (in the world), we really have to be in a place where we can engage with each other—not from a distance but in each other’s backyards."

Indeed, colleges across the country are developing or expanding Cuba abroad programs, though for many institutions, like Brown and Tulane, the concurrence with the news is largely coincidental. School officials say the trend instead reflects the growing interest among college students to experience Cuba and, of course, the easing of restrictions in 2011. As of now, about two dozen Cuba study-abroad programs are in operation in the U.S., offering courses that include Towson University’s "Close but No Cigars: Economics and Supply Chain in Cuba, NYU’s "Dance and Culture in Havana," and Rutgers University’s "Public Health and Wellness in Cuba." Brown, for its part, has operated a small-scale study-abroad program in Cuba since 2008 but, starting this semester, it’s ramping up exchange opportunities through a seven-member consortium that includes Ivy-League universities such as Columbia and Cornell, as well as Johns Hopkins and Northwestern.

College students will likely reap the benefits of the new policy agreement, but they’re also probably part of the reason that new agreement came about. Academic relationships have helped influence a generational shift in public opinion about the relationship between Cuba and the U.S.

Still, it’s hard to predict exactly what the countries’ relationship will look like further down the line, and how Cuba will or won’t change remains to be seen. Little is possible without stronger economic ties, and it’s largely up to the Cuban government whether to make key, politically consequential, decisions such as embracing the Internet. For many today’s college students, the limited technology infrastructure could be a deal breaker. "It makes it very hard for our students to spend four months unplugged," Tulane’s Lopez said. "What kills them, what hurts them the most, is not having the Internet, not having a cell phone to text on."

But Lopez emphasized that, as far as re-establishing diplomacy goes, the process is better gradual than hasty: "Significant changes have to be introduced slowly to shake the foundations of history."

* This piece originally referred to Allan Goodman's organization as the International Institute of Education. We regret the error.