The University of Tennessee, Knoxville’s Haslam College of Business, began sending students to Cuba annually around the time the United States eased travel restrictions in 2015. International relations have undergone dramatic changes since, with the U.S. going so far as to draw down its embassy presence, but the students who visited Cuba this December were undeterred. They engaged with a complex and changing international environment.
For Madison Hutts, a marketing major, experiencing Cuban culture was a highlight of the trip. She was nervous about the country’s contentious relationship with the U.S. but found conditions on the ground to be contrary to her assumptions.
“I was taken aback,” Hutts said. “My prior conceptions of Cuba were completely wrong, because the people were extremely welcoming and kind. They loved interacting with us, as we did with them. Cuba has so much culture to take in, and Cubans are proud of that.”
Hutts also was initially concerned about coping with a language barrier, but found many of the Cubans she encountered to be fluent in English. When she returned home to Knoxville, Hutts reflected on her experience and decided to pursue international business in the future. “This trip encouraged me to seize all opportunities, even if new and unfamiliar,” she said. “It also helped me get connected with classmates whose interests and goals are similar to mine.”
Sara Easler, director of international programs and study abroad at Haslam, said university leadership deliberated this year about whether to continue programs in Cuba. Easler cited reports of “sonic attacks” on U.S. embassy staff and a subsequent travel warning issued by the State Department.
“We believe strongly in the learning opportunity in Cuba, particularly as it relates to business, but student safety is our highest priority,” Easler said. “All of our programs have contingency plans in the event of an emergency, but additional measures were undertaken for the program in Cuba. After learning a bit more about these, parents and students were more comfortable.”
While abroad, students experienced the true face of Cuba, Easler said. “Cubans smile, laugh, sing and spend time with friends and family,” she said. “Many are growing small, private businesses and seeing a change in their daily lives. They remain impacted by the embargo, but for the most part have what they need for survival and are happy.” Limited cell phone connectivity and other missing conveniences of American life gave students an opportunity to be fully immersed in Cuban life.
Joshua Key, an accounting major, felt challenged to unify perceptions about Cuba gleaned from the news media with the experiences he lived. “My friends and I would go out every night to meet as many new people as we could and talk to them about their experiences as Cuban citizens,” Key said. “The Cuban people were some of the most genuinely nice and welcoming people I have ever met in my life.”