Hampshire College Cuba

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Creating Cuban Consciousness

Moving into its twentieth year—and counting—Hampshire’s Cuba Program will continue to immerse students in todas las cosas cubanas in spring 2020

Before studying in Havana last year, Rosa Ramírez Mazaheri could “barely call myself a poet.”

Now, she stands firmly in her artistry.

Mazaheri, who is entering her senior year at Smith College, is one of seven students—including six from Hampshire—who traveled to Havana last spring as part of Hampshire’s Cuba Program.

“This experience was the most life changing thing that could ever happen to someone,” says Mazaheri. “Because of the program, I’ve met two of my favorite poets, who have told me that I’m an amazing poet [too].”

Now entering its twentieth year, Hampshire’s Cuba Program brings students from Hampshire and other colleges to live for three months in Havana and study one-on-one with Cuban mentors across disciplines, writing, filmmaking, sociology, and studio arts. It operates in partnership with the Alejo Carpentier Foundation, a Havana-based organization named in honor of one of the country’s most acclaimed novelists, musicologists, and essayists.

This past semester, Michele Hardesty, associate professor of U.S. literatures and cultural studies at Hampshire, led the program and served as its faculty-in-residence.

“It operates like an apprenticeship,” Hardesty says. “Students are matched with a Cuban scholar or practitioner in their field with whom they work closely to complete independent projects.”

The program was founded in 2000 by emerita professor Carollee Bengelsdorf, who fused teaching, mentoring, scholarship, and activism. She aimed to establish a connection between Hampshire students and Cuba during the U.S. embargo, which sharply restricted American travel to the island. 

To call the Cuba Program a “study abroad” experience would be a misnomer. Living with families in Havana’s iconic Vedado neighborhood, one of the country’s cultural centers, students integrate themselves into the community.

While several academic programs have adopted some of the Cuba Program’s elements, Hardesty says, “I really don’t think any other U.S.-based academic program in Cuba matches what Hampshire does.”

In a typical week, students meet with their specially chosen mentors for six hours, study Spanish language intensively, and come together as a group with their faculty-in-residence for a project seminar. In addition, they collectively take a required class taught by Cuban scholars, “Contemporary Cuban Culture and Society.” The course probes a variety of topics from race, sexuality, and gender to United States-Cuba relations, and contemporary Cuban art, music, theater, film and literature.

In the mode of Hampshire’s unique educational model, each student embarks on a project of their own making and at the end of the semester presents it in Spanish to their cohort. Past projects have included “Reproductive Culture in Cuba, Motherhood, Economics, Medicine,” an examination of the experiences of birth, pregnancy, and motherhood in Cuba as seen through the eyes of eight women ages 30 to 87; “Individual Identity through Printmaking,” a visual narrative of the search for identity; “Closing the Gaps in Urban Agriculture,” a history of congruent government and agricultural changes in Cuba since the 1950s; and "Un panorama histórico y actual del violin en Cuba," a history of the violin in Cuban culture.

“Students’ individual projects are at the center of their experience in the program,” says Hardesty. “The students almost always end up activating collaborative relationships with their mentors. Academically, they come of out of this program very prepared for the independent work demanded of them during their Div III at Hampshire, or for capstone projects at other colleges.”

The Program’s annual Cuba Symposium will be on Tuesday, September 24 at 5:30 p.m., in East Lecture Hall. Students from the spring 2019 program will present their projects and talk about their experiences.

“One of the most surprising things for me was the beautiful community around this,” says Nina Barker, who will graduate from Hampshire in spring 2020.

“It’s everyone at the Alejo Carpentier Foundation,” she says. “It’s the tutors; it’s the families with whom [we] live, who are in the same neighborhood and know each other. But it’s more. It is also the people involved in past years who come back. You get to be part of this nineteen-year legacy and see the community that’s grown around it.”

Apply for Hampshire's Cuba program here.

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