The University of Iowa

Study abroad benefits from improving Cuba/U.S. relations

July 20th, 2015

By Yun Lin, The Daily Iowan

In the upcoming years, students will be able to get an up-close view of Cuba as never before. In December 2014, President Obama announced the loosening of trade and travel restrictions with Cuba, which took effect on Jan. 16. This makes visiting Cuba much easier for Americans than in the last 54 years. After the United States and Cuba normalized relations, colleges in both countries began to form partnerships that were once heavily restricted.

students in Cuba

UI students on a University Studies Abroad Consortium program in Havana with UI professor Adriana Méndez Rodenas over the 2014-15 winter break

The University of Iowa was one of the first schools to send students to study in the island nation.

“We were allowing and able to send faculty members and students to go to Cuba for most of the past 15 years or so,” said Liz Wildenberg De Hernandez, an associate director of UI Study Abroad.

She said that while the process is much easier now, before the president’s actions in January, it was not easy for students, or Americans in general, to go to Cuba.

“It was very difficult, like the lack of Internet and cash economy,” she said. “There was not a commercial economy between the U.S. and Cuba, so everything had to be worked around. So I think going forward will be easier.”

A UI student on a 2012 program to Cuba

Over this past summer, only one student from the UI was able to travel to Cuba. UI Professor of Spanish & Portuguese Adriana Méndez Rodenas said that while the university does not currently have its own Cuba program, students still have the option to study abroad via the University Studies Abroad Consortium program, of which the UI is a member. Wildenberg De Hernandez said that from an academic standpoint, a lot of UI faculty members from many fields are interested in Cuba and have tried to learn about and visit with the people of Cuba.

Joan Kjaer, the UI International Programs communications director, had a chance to go to Cuba in March. While there she studied architecture in the capital, Havana, and participated in a workshop about future development of the city. "It was a friendly, warm, and incredibly wonderful experience,” she said. “Everyone in Cuba was extremely nice to me and to other people who participated in this program.”

Kjaer said it was very impressive, and she believes the people in Cuba were very eager to see President Obama and Cuban leaders agree to the open relationship.

“Cubans are very anxious to see Americans take part in their lives,” she said. “They would be interested in any possible way to get a relationship between the U.S. and Cuba.”

Wildenberg De Hernandez said she hoped there would be a parallel economy in Cuba for tourists, so Americans would have more interactions with local people. Kjaer said she believes that this is a really important historical moment for both Americans and Cubans.

“I hope that over time, more Americans will visit Cuba and understand the people there and help the Cuban-American relationship become stronger, because we share many things in common.”