The University of Iowa

Student Reflections on LGBTQ Identity from Havana, Cuba

March 25th, 2015

UI Study Abroad Diversity Ambassador Scholar Eric Mortensen is a senior majoring in civil engineering with a minor in Spanish. Over the 2014-15 winter break he studied abroad for three weeks on the USAC Havana Program in Havana, Cuba where he gained first-hand insight into the island’s past, present and future realities. In this letter he reflects on Cuba and diversity as an LGBT man.

Dear prospective study abroad student,

If you take one thing away from this letter, let it be this: travel. Life is too short to live in the same box forever, and the world is far too large and diverse a place to ignore. Luckily, you have the opportunity of a lifetime to indulge your wanderlust by participating in a study abroad program offered through our university.

In my last year at Iowa, I served as a Diversity Ambassador in a study abroad program which took me to Havana, Cuba. It was an unforgettable month of culture, dancing, cuisine, and lifelong memories. During my time on the island with the 20 other Americans participating in the USAC program, I learned much about group dynamics, gained some close friends, and had the time of my life experiencing such a unique learning opportunity with a well-rounded group of peers. The most important lessons I learned with regard to diversity, I learned from the people I met on the island. While a student at The University of Iowa, I participated in programs based in Sweden, Panama, and Cuba- contributing to approximately one-fifth of the academic credit I earned as an undergraduate. While each of my experiences have varied in completed coursework, total duration, and living accommodations, the fundamental detail that each of these experiences share with one another is the impact they have had on my life. I would not be the scholar, leader, or individual I am today without my experiences abroad.

Three instances in particular from my time in Cuba stick out in my mind as moments which impacted my perceptions of diversity.

The whole group on the winter 2014-15 USAC program in Havana, Cuba

My first night in Cuba I danced the night away with my roommates and met several locals. I happened to start chatting with a thirty-something Cuban man who was dressed quite superbly and had dance moves to match. Through the course of the night, though, I couldn’t help but notice some dirty looks coming his way from some onlookers. When I asked him about any animosity that he had received before, he responded, “If you live by their rules, you don’t live at all.” With that, the night continued on. The challenge of embracing and loving yourself for who you are is truly one of the biggest struggles that all of humanity faces, regardless of personal identity or geographic location. This instance reaffirmed this reality, but also served as a refreshing reminder of how to overcome this challenge with a smile. Read as: be yourself and don’t worry about others because they aren’t worth your time.

While our group was in Varadero Beach celebrating New Year’s Eve, I met Joakim and Tove, a young couple from Stockholm, Sweden on vacation. The three of us sat on the beach and talked for several hours about our lives and our future plans. Eventually the topic of diversity was brought up- specifically, how diversity will shape future generations of the world. As she talked about her aspirations for the world that her children will one day live in, Tove said,

With my Cuban cuisine instructor, Odalys

“I hope my children never have to come out or establish themselves as different or diverse. Not because I don’t appreciate diversity, but because diversity should be something that everyone understands and accepts without a second thought. If diversity was truly appreciated by everyone, there would be no push for tolerance and acceptance in our communities. Since that is not the case, we [people who appreciate diversity] need to go out into the world and infiltrate all aspects of society and make people realize that different is good. Different is normal.”

The diversity campaign is often seen as an aggressively invasive one, but what Tove suggested in that moment was that diversity should come not in the form of a trumpet blast or tsunami wave, but rather in the form of a kind handshake, a pat on the back, or a friendly hug. Read as: be yourself because ‘normal’ people need to gain a new perspective on life. 

On one of my last evenings in Cuba, I gave my Cuban cuisine teacher, Odalys, a warm embrace and thanked her for all that she had taught me about cooking, for inviting me into her home, and for sharing her family with me. In return, she gave me two besitos and said to me, “I love you, and I love you for who you are.” Read as: be yourself because you will be loved for who you are by people who are truly worth your time.

Diversity is not about placing yourself into a distinguishable box or placing a label on your forehead. Diversity is not a radical campaign to push any particular agenda in front of others. Diversity is an effort to open the minds of others and to make a better world for all. A world that is diverse is a world that succeeds. A world that accepts and loves its people for who they are is one in which our children and our children’s children will thrive.

I hope my message has been inscribed onto your heart: if you live life as your own person with a healthy disregard for the opinions of others, you don’t have anything to worry about when pursing your dreams and goals. Through the duration of my undergraduate career, this philosophy has proven true to me. I intend to live my life accordingly for as long as I am given time on this earth.

Have fun during your study abroad experience, and be safe!


Learn more about the Diversity Ambassador Scholarship for Study Abroad

Read more about the 2014-15 Cuba trip in this article by program leader and UI professor Adriana Mendez