The 1958 United States trade embargo on Cuba had a significant impact on international education efforts. The embargo hindered meaningful collaborations between U.S. and Cuban educators and students. Despite the trade embargo and lack of long-standing diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba, American colleges maintained relationships with Cuban universities for the last several decades. Many U.S. professors and students traveled to Cuba for study or research. On December 17, 2014, former President Barack Obama’s administrative measures heralded a new era of U.S.-Cuba relations.
In 1994, when Cuban educational scholars couldn’t travel to the U.S. for an educational conference, Dr. Sheryl Lutjens from California State University San Marcos and Dr. Lidia Turner from the Association of Cuban Educators started a Cuba educational exchange with the goal of taking U.S. scholars to Cuba to study Cuban educational practices. Hundreds of U.S. and international professionals and students have participated in the program since the founding of the exchange in 1994.
In 2013, the University of Maryland’s Office of International Affairs, under the direction of Dr. Taylor Woodman, an alumni of the International Education Policy program, added a Cuban study abroad course for College of Education graduate students. In 2014, Dr. Lutjens passed the torch to Dr. Woodman to lead the exchange and to ensure educational research collaborations are maintained between Cuba and the U.S., so that these educational communities can learn from and contribute to one another.
“The Cuban education course is a unique opportunity for U.S. scholars to collaborate with Cuban scholars on ways to improve the education system in both the U.S. and Cuba,” says Dr. Woodman. “While in Cuba, student and scholars learn about Cuban educational practices and the complex, global issues of contemporary education through site visits to local schools, research centers and universities as well as lectures and small group discussions with leading Cuban education scholars and practitioners. The course provides an opportunity for us as researchers in the U.S. to examine dominant education policy and practice and to seek alternatives.”
For the last five years, through a collaboration with the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, George Washington University, and the Association of Cuban Educators, UMD has participated in the Academic Explorations program to facilitate the study abroad portion of this course in Cuba. The Academic Explorations program is an intensive weeklong educational seminar that facilitates research on the Cuban educational system, policies, and practices at all levels, from daycare to university to adult education.
“I see this program as an opportunity to expand the college’s international education research and make valuable contributions that will help improve the U.S. and Cuban education systems,” Dr. Woodman says. “The experience students gain during their research trip to Cuba is invaluable. They present their theories on an international stage to audience members with diverse and differing perspectives.”
The course, “Embargoed Dialogues: International Investigations in Cuban Education,” combines a virtual learning environment with a travel component to Cuba. Students have the chance to conduct international research related to their academic interests and receive feedback from an international audience. The workshop style of the program allows students to engage with local Cuban educators through scholarly lectures, collaborative exchanges, interviews and site visits.
This course is a part of UMD’s Global Classrooms Initiative, which provides financial support to faculty to develop innovative, project-based courses that bring together UMD students and students from partner universities around the world using various digital technologies. Courses like “Embargoed Dialogues,” aim to provide students with international experiences that mirror the kind of work they will encounter throughout their lives: cross-cultural, project-based and virtual. One unique aspect of the Global Classrooms Initiative is that it allows students in both the U.S. and the partner country to simultaneously take the same class, leading to interesting classroom discussions and projects that reflect each group of students’ background.
“I learned that Cuba, like any other place in the world, is dynamic and complex,” Shelvia English, a Cuba program alumni and former Teaching Assistant at UMD, says. “I learned that with such little resources and living decades under the U.S. blockade— as Cubans call it, where as we call it an embargo—Cuba and its people achieved great things such as access to education for all and high literacy rates.”
Knowledge sharing across the embargo has its challenges. However, with the exchange as a platform, students and faculty have been able to have conversations that will be essential to developing new ideas and alternative options to improve education outcomes for Cuban students and teachers. Since Dr. Woodman instituted the program at UMD, program participants have been to five different Cuban Provinces in the last five years. The goal is to look across the island to see how education issues emerge and to examine how policy in the U.S. impacts Cuba.
“As a Florida native, I am heavily influenced by Cuban culture and the stories of Cuban Americans. My curiosity in UMD’s Cuba course stemmed from my upbringing, as well as my interest in Cuban-US relations and international policy,” says Associate Clinical Professor and Diversity Officer Dr. Ebony Terrell Shockley. “As a COE faculty member, I saw this program as an opportunity to expand my research, as well as build networks in Cuba to explore new and existing research. The course allows faculty members to present our research at a Cuban conference and exchange ideas with Cuban professors from around the country. One of the exchanges for me resulted in additional conversations and visits which turned into an invitation to serve on an Editorial Board for a Cuban journal.”
As part of their research studies, UMD students and students from other participating colleges meet with Cuban university faculty and students from the Province’s main university in small groups to better understand the inter-workings of their education system. U.S. students and faculty use the final results of the research to write research papers, journal articles, book chapters and develop academic posters and presentations.
Recent research has revealed a complicated narrative when telling the story of Cuba and the Cuban education system. As U.S.-Cuban engagement slowly increases, new voices and new stories about Cuban life continue to emerge—shattering stereotypes and removing the veil of the past.
This program is showing no signs of slowing down. There is an increasing need to bridge the gap between U.S.-Cuban academic scholars and develop more projects that align with the mission of this program. As an example, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers collaborated with Dr. Woodman to create The Cuban Project. In 2018, they partnered with UMD and sent 12 members of their organization to Cuba to participate in the research efforts.
Originally published in the College’s alumni magazine, Endeavors Summer 2019 issue.
Photo Credit: Taylor Woodman