Pictured from left are Eric Eller, Kevin Mackin, Brian McQueen, Katrina Farren-Eller and Thomas Jorsch.
In June, five Upper Iowa University faculty members traveled to Cuba as part of the Faculty International Grant (FIG) program. As they presented a program of their experiences to the UIU community and each one agreed to share some thoughts with readers of The Bridge on their impressions of Cuba and how their experience affected their teaching.
Thomas F. Jorsch, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of History
Most of the time, when I talk about Cuba in class, the circumstances are pretty bleak: the oppression of Cubans under Spanish rule, the sinking of the USS Maine in Havana harbor, the botched Bay of Pigs invasion, and the Cuban Missile Crisis as the closest time the United States. came to a nuclear war. What I don't get to talk about, but will in the future, is the strong spirit of Cuban nationalism that led to Castro's 1959 Revolution that freed Cuba from foreign domination. While Cuba today certainly has its problems, I was struck by the openness of the people, the relaxed atmosphere in Havana, and their desire to normalize relations with the United States I also loved the old Spanish architecture, the live music scene, and to be perfectly honest, the rum and cigars too.
R. Kevin Mackin, Ed.D., Assistant Professor in the Andres School of Education
We entered a small art gallery in a crowded alley in Havana. Upon being told we were Americans, the artist spread his arms and greeted us by saying, "Welcome to our beloved enemies." His tongue-in-cheek greeting captures, for me, the ambivalence of the Cuban-American relationship. Cuba is a country of many contrasts - the contrast between the verdant countryside and miles of pristine beaches with the crowded and dilapidated city of Havana; the contrast between modern mega-buses and horse-drawn taxis; the contrast between the Cuba presented to tourists and the Cuba of its citizens; the contrast between a country anchored in 1960 and striving for 2013; the contrast between Cuban feelings toward Americans and Cuban feelings toward our government. The biggest contrast, however, is between the Cuba that has been presented to us through the filter of 54 years of isolation and the beautiful, vibrant, culturally rich country with warm and welcoming people that we experienced. It is that Cuba I will share with my students.
Katrina Farren-Eller, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of English
When I was young, my parents taught me that Fidel Castro was a dictator and Cuba was a horrible place to live. On this amazing trip to Cuba, I was reminded that while we initially look at the world through a particular kind of lens based on what we have been taught, our experiences offer us new lenses to see the world differently, more deeply, and at the same time, more broadly. This is the gift I'd like to share with my students - the ability and desire to critically analyze their particular views of the world and to see it with fresh, more knowledgeable eyes, helping them to understand more fully what it means to be a global citizen.
Eric P. Eller, Ph.D., Associate Professor of International Business
This was not my first trip to Cuba. I previously visited in 2003 as part of an Iowa trade delegation and again in January of 2004 with a group of students from my prior university. Those experiences have been important in my International Business and Economics classrooms ever since, but now I am able to share a broader experience. In response to losing economic support of the Soviet Union upon its collapse in the early 1990s, President Fidel Castro was forced to institute a number of economic reforms in order to maintain power. These included a two-currency system that allowed ordinary Cubans to be able to afford basic necessities, while establishing a parallel economy for those in the tourism industry. This parallel economy has led to huge disparities in living standards for those interacting with tourists versus those who do not. This was continued after Raul Castro took power from his brother, and yet Raul seems to understand that such disparities create immense discord. He has taken steps to allow for the purchase and sale of private property (real estate and vehicles) and recently announced plans to eliminate the two-currency system. Traveling to Cuba this time allows me to provide better context to my students as we talk about economies in transition.
Brian McQueen, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice
Because Cubans are one of the largest immigrant groups in the United States, I was very interested in going there to learn more about the culture, the Cuban way of life, and the reasons Cubans decide to come to the United States. What I learned was a great surprise. While large numbers of Cubans emigrate, mostly headed to the United States, they don't leave their homeland behind. This was apparent in the joy upon arriving in Cuba expressed by the Cuban expatriates on our flight. From this first experience it became apparent that Cuban culture has developed from a group of people torn between two societies. Cubans are drawn both to free markets and the Revolution. They embrace both the cosmopolitan influences of the United States and rich history and traditions of the island. These seeming contradictions have given rise to a culture that is warm and friendly, striving to be a part of the two societies, but held back by the politics of both.