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Pointers help chart new course on Cuba

In December 2014, when President Obama announced the U.S. would reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, that small Caribbean nation suddenly became front-page news for most Americans. Experts speculated on the business, tourism and political impacts that such a move would have on both countries.
 
Students and faculty at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point had a head start on the rest of the country in learning about Cuba firsthand. Led by Anju Reejhsinghani, assistant professor of history, Pointers have taken study abroad Winterim trips to Cuba in 2013 and 2014, with a third trip planned for May and June 2016.
 
The seeds for the Cuba program were planted in 2001, when Reejhsinghani – then a graduate student in Latin American and Caribbean history – attended a writers’ conference in Havana. Attending such “people-to-people” conferences was then one of the only ways that Americans could legally visit Cuba. Her unforgettable experience persuaded her to deepen her study of the country, and she returned many times during the ensuing decade.
 
Almost immediately upon joining  UW-Stevens Point in Fall 2010, Reejhsinghani pitched the idea of a study abroad trip to Cuba. Chancellor Bernie Patterson, Provost Greg Summers, and Director of International Programs Eric Yonke, along with her dean, chair and colleagues in the Department of History, supported her efforts. It took a year and a half for Reejhsinghani to develop a program that met her vision for blending a strong educational component with on-the-ground cultural immersion. Fourteen students, including nine from UW-Stevens Point signed up for the inaugural 2013 trip.
 
Student recruitment (aided by intern Randa Meyer) involved larger challenges than the typical “how will I afford this?” consideration. “I feared getting in and out of the country,” recalls Erin Jensen, who participated in both trips – first as a student and later as an assistant. “During my first visit ... relations between Cuba and the U.S. were much different than they are now. I worried that we would be questioned and seen negatively both in Cuba and on our return to the U.S. My mom worried about my safety, and whether a country that seemed to ‘hate’ the U.S. would welcome us. My friends thought I was a bit nuts and asked how I was going to legally enter the country since ‘Americans can’t go there!’”
 
Jensen, who graduated in 2014 with a broad-field social science degree and minors in Spanish and history, found those concerns to be overstated. “Our presence was welcomed by all the Cubans we encountered,” she says. “They were adamant in telling us that they are not their government, and that they would love to see Cuba and the U.S. become good neighbors one day.”
 
The educational component of the trip began before students left campus. Reejhsinghani led in-person orientations (inviting students’ parents to attend) and developed extensive preparation guides, a detailed syllabus and a course website. Students had the option of doing assigned readings ahead of time, since Reejhsinghani predicted that they might experience culture shock upon arrival. Once in Havana, the program’s home base, students gave oral presentations, discussed readings, kept writing journals, and were tested on Cuban geography, history and current events.
 
Cuba’s technological limitations presented a challenge for Reejhsinghani. “We didn’t have access to computers, printers, or Wi-Fi – you can get it, but it’s costly,” she says. “I had to print every quiz, every test, and bring it with me.” Though she warned students at orientations about the challenges of being “off the grid,” she wasn’t sure how they would handle it. Surprisingly, most enjoyed the break from constant connectivity, welcoming a slower pace that allowed them the opportunity to befriend Cubans their age – and each other.
 
A key on-the-ground contact became Ernesto Domínguez López, professor of political science and history at the University of Havana. Domínguez López was impressed by the intensive educational nature of Reejhsinghani’s program and accepted her invitation to give a guest lecture on Cuban foreign policy. “This guy’s fantastic, incredibly knowledgeable, likeable, enthusiastic,” Reejhsinghani says. “He talked without notes for an hour and a half. Our students were blown away by his expertise.”
 
Acting on student feedback from the first trip, for the 2014 program Reejhsinghani added more interaction with Cuban young people. In addition to relying on Jensen and intern Bailey Abraham, she turned to Domínguez López and his wife and fellow academic, Seida Barrera Rodríguez, to coordinate afternoon mixers with University of Havana students. Jensen found these to be one of the high points of the 2014 trip, as did several other students who ended up befriending young Cubans.
 
Upon her return to Stevens Point, Reejhsinghani and her colleagues on the Latin American/Caribbean Speaker Series invited Domínguez López to become the university’s first official Cuban guest. After a months-long effort to secure his visa, Domínguez López came to campus in Fall 2014 to guest-teach several COLS classes and to deliver an impactful public lecture on U.S.-Cuban relations. The announcement of impending normalized ties between the nations came just a few months later.
 
Reejhsinghani is now gearing up for the next UW-Stevens Point Cuba trip, in May-June 2016. The program has blossomed from two weeks to four (and from three credits to six) and includes weekend excursions to several different parts of Cuba. “Students felt that two weeks were not enough, so this should give them a more immersive experience, as well as a more interdisciplinary one,” Reejhsinghani notes. Associate professor of political science Jennifer Collins is co-directing the program, which includes a focus on how Cuba is changing in the wake of normalization and what may lie ahead following the impending retirement of Raúl Castro in 2018.
 
For more information on the 2016 program, contact Reejhsinghani at areejhsi@uwsp.edu or International Programs at intlprog@uwsp.edu.
 
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