Opening of Cuba reveals lessons on historic transition

Students from Colorado and Wisconsin have visited recently
By: | May 17, 2016

Improving relations with Cuba have renewed interest in educational travel for some U.S. schools this year, with teachers eager to show students a country on the cusp of historic changes.

While the U.S. government banned tourism to Cuba in 1963 at the height of the Cold War, educational travel remained legal. The United States and Cuba restored diplomatic relations in 2015 and reopened embassies in each nation.

Nearly three dozen high school students from Whitefish Bay School District outside Milwaukee travelled to Cuba in March with history teacher Riley Mewes. “We wanted to go now and experience Cuba before it changes too much, and get to be part of this healing process between the two nations” Mewes says.

On the trip, planned through student travel group Education First, students toured historic Cuban sights, including the city of Havana. They also met artists and musicians, played baseball with locals, and visited schools and an organic farm. Some of these interactions were not part of the itinerary, but happened organically in the streets and plazas, Mewes says. “We got a unique window into Cuban life” Mewes says.

The improved international relationship was also on display, he adds: American flags and photos of President Barack Obama were plentiful, and Cubans embraced the students once they learned they were American.

Another group of students from Aspen School District in Colorado also traveled to Cuba in March, arriving days after Obama concluded a visit. High school social studies teacher Gretchen Calhoun planned the trip with the travel company Cuba Explorer.

Students absorbed the music, art and architecture of Havana, and visited a school and a tobacco plantation. The students were fascinated by the 1950s cars driven in Havana (foreign vehicle imports had been banned) as well as the workings of the government, Calhoun says.

The nation has separate economies and currencies for foreign tourists and locals. The latter live on rations for food and other necessities, but the new wave of U.S. tourism has brought some Cubans another income source, Calhoun says.

“It’s an experience you can’t really replicate anywhere else in the world—an opportunity to see a communist country in transition” she says. “It’s very eye-opening.”

Administrator advice

Many administrators remain unsure of legal restrictions for student travel to Cuba, says Carylann Assante, executive director of the Student & Youth Travel Association, a nonprofit trade group that arranges trips for 3 million students per year.

Many student travel groups, including People to People and Explorica, are licensed to bring students to Cuba. The trip qualifies as educational so long as students spend at least three hours each day on instructional activities, she says.

Assante offers the following advice for schools considering Cuba trips:

Build lessons on Cuban history and culture into the curriculum.

Start planning the trip at least six months in advance.

Hire a licensed tour company (such as Explorica, People to People or Education First).

Check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention pre-travel for health warnings, especially Zika virus.

Mewes and Calhoun recommend preparing students for Cuba’s infrastructure problems and certain aspects of life (such as communication) moving more slowly than they do in the United States. They also advise maintaining a flexible mindset, as tour plans may change quickly based on whether or not certain attractions are open on a given day.

“It’s a unique opportunity to let kids experience world history changing” Assante says.