Hampshire College is known for its study abroad program in Cuba. In fact, many prospective students are well aware of it as they apply for admission. "It was such a plus," said Thais Guisasola. "I thought: if they have this initiative, then they must have some very interesting ways of approaching education."
Begun in 1997, the semester-long program allows students to investigate the Cuban social environment and create media-based work in response. Although the conception of Cuba is constantly tangled in notions of freedom, capitalism, and socialism, the program's faculty stand clear in their belief that "participation in the program is not a political statement."
"It's really about trying to understand this place more profoundly," said Professor Flavio Risech-Ozeguera, one of the program's faculty members. "It's what Hampshire is about, being able to analyze and think critically."
"It's a very Hampshire program in that you have independent work, you're working on your project the whole time and you have the support of Hampshire professors," said student Morgan Greenstreet.
Students' projects may not be explicitly political, but many cite their experience as loaded with realizations about Cuba, its people, and their individual place, as scholars and friends, within it. Unlike many academic programs in which students stay in hotels, Hampshire students are hosted by families in Havana. They continue to gain a mastery of Spanish, and begin to understand the everyday realities of life in Cuba. "Students are immersed in Cuban society the very first day," said Professor Risech-Ozeguera.
By speaking with students who have traveled with the program, one gets the sense that what their experiences have in common are the questions they continue to investigate.
"I realized you can read so much about a place, but you have to actually be there to feel it, to understand it," said Morgan, who participated in the program his second year.
"You always have to be aware of your position," said Thais, who made a narrative short film about Cuban concepts of gender and sexuality. "One cannot generalize a situation."
Guisasola, like many of the students in the program recognized her position as a constant tension between being an insider and outsider.
"You're not likely to ever belong, and there's not really space for you to," said Morgan, who studied popular and religious Cuban drumming styles. "The acknowledgement is there that you can never really drum like them, because you didn't grow up hearing it and playing it."
"They're always negotiating," said Professor Risech-Ozeguera of the Hampshire students. "One of the huge things they have to constantly negotiate is this huge difference in economic power. A student on full-need scholarship from Hampshire is vastly wealthy compared to an everyday Cuban standpoint."
For undergraduate students beginning intensive hands-on projects, the obscurity of the Cuban experience can be overwhelming, but many accept the challenge of expecting the unexpected.
"I don't know what to expect really until I get there," said Dot Goldberger before she left to spend this semester in Havana. "It's difficult in that I need to prepare fully before I get there, yet I don't know what I'm really preparing for."
While difficult, this obscurity is a key factor that makes Cuba so fascinating not only for students, but also for the global community. "There's something behind the keyhole that people want to see," said Professor Risech-Ozeguera. "And in turn, this really fuels the tourist industry, and Cubans do exploit this for profit." Again, another facet of Cuban society that students have to think critically about.
Morgan found himself at odds with stereotypes of Cuban music rather quickly. "The music that's marketed in the U.S. and Europe as 'Cuban music' is everywhere in Havana for tourists, but its not something Cubans actually enjoy." Unexpectedly, he found himself immersed in religious drumming styles he had initially been uncomfortable about. "I wasn't part of the religion, and I didn't want to drum in a religious context. But, I'm really glad I ended up studying it," he said.
Both Morgan and Thais have related their study in Cuba with other international perspectives. Morgan traveled to Ghana to trace a lineage of drumming styles and found himself sharing what he learned in Cuba with Ghanaians. Thais is working on two other short films focusing on similar issues of gender and sexualityâ€”one in New York City, and the other in São Paulo, Brazil.