By Pamela White ’19
In Professor Laura Klugherz’s Core Cuba course our first assignment was to write what we knew about Cuba coming into the class. I was a sophomore when I completed the assignment and I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, but I’m sure it wasn’t anything more than “cigars, missile crisis, and old-fashioned cars.” The point of this exercise was to give Professor Klugherz a general idea of what the students knew about Cuba, but also to show how little common knowledge actually exists about Cuba in the United States. When I took the course, Professor Klugherz informed me that she planned to take a study group to Cuba. This course had further sparked my interest in becoming a Latin American studies major and led me to officially declare, with Professor Klugherz as my adviser. As soon as she told me that there was the potential to study on the ground in Cuba, I knew I wanted to be part of that trip no matter what. After several years of hard work on the part of Professor Klugherz, staff at Colgate, and IFSA Butler in Cuba the trip finally came together. At the end of my second to last semester at Colgate I had the extraordinary opportunity to take part in the extended study to Cuba. It was an experience that has defined my academic career and one that I will never forget.
On the trip we spent the majority of our time in Havana. The group was made up of ten students. Three of us had taken the inaugural Core Cuba class in 2016, but the majority of the group had taken the course in the Fall of 2018 right before our trip. During our stay we lived with host families in the neighborhood of Vedado. Another student and I stayed with a woman named Madeline (she asked us to call her “Made”) and her parents. They were gracious hosts and we were fortunate that her father had previously been a cook, so every meal we were served was more delicious than the last. Our days were busy, filled with classes, lectures, and site visits. Cuban professors came into our classes to lecture about their areas of expertise including, U.S./Cuba relations, education reforms in Cuba, race and gender in Cuba, and music. These lectures gave us the opportunity to learn and also exchange knowledge with experts in Cuba. Additionally, each student presented to the class on a research topic relating to Cuba that they had worked on for a full semester. These presentations were paired with site visits that heightened the experience for the whole group. We visited a former tobacco plantation that is now an expansive bioreserve community. Art and music dominated most of our trip, from the murals painted on walls in the streets to the fine arts museums we visited to the Havana International Jazz festival we attended (and sat in the front row!). On the weekends we traveled out of Havana to Santa Clara, Cienfuegos and Trinidad.
I mean it when I say that this trip was the highlight and defining point of my Colgate academic career. There is something unique and priceless about having the opportunity to see the things and people you have studied in real life. A full semester of readings and research could never have helped me to understand the complexities of Cuba in the way that my three weeks there did. All of the people that we met and conversed with in Cuba were friendly and shaped my favorite memories of Cuba. Drinking coffee in an all English language bookstore in the middle of Havana, talking with Cuban student activists about U.S. politics was an experience that I could never have imagined, but now it is one I will never forget. I will always be grateful to Colgate and to Professor Klugherz for this opportunity to expand my understanding of Cuba and Latin America outside of the classroom. I am already planning my next visit to Cuba to see the beauty of Las Terrazas once more and to drink the only iced coffee in Havana at Cuba Libre bookstore. My favorite quote I heard in Cuba was from a philosophy professor who said, “Visitors will never understand Cuba because Cubans themselves cannot even fully define it.” This perfectly encapsulates the complex and ever-changing climate of Cuba. The climate I never would have even begun to understand without living and breathing Cuba for three weeks.