A Semester in Cuba
Journalist-in-Residence and director of the Backpack Journalism Project Bill Gentile led a group of AU Abroad students to Cuba in the Fall of 2011. They returned with amazing photojournalism projects on various aspects of Cuban life. Below is a reflection on the trip from Gentile.
It was at the goodbye ceremony marking the end of our AU Abroad semester in Cuba. Our hosts at Casa de las Americas took turns addressing the six AU students, their Cuban professors and the entire staff of Casa, Cuba’s premier cultural center. On this cool December evening we stood in the open-air patio behind the building, 100 yards or so from Havana’s famed “Malecon,” or sea wall.
It had been a long and fruitful semester. The six AU students had coped with a new culture and a new language; with the sweltering heat and humidity of August and September; with food they were unaccustomed to; with a transportation system limited in scope and efficiency; in short, with all the deprivations associated with living in a country “in development.”
The flip side, of course, is that the students all had the privilege to visit and to live in a place off-limits for decades to the vast majority of U.S. citizens, since the early days of Fidel Castro’s 1959 Revolution. Their professors were personal acquaintances of Castro and Che Guevara. Not just professors, they were revolutionaries, diplomats, and government officials. In effect, the AU students had taken lessons from Cuban history itself.
The speakers thanked our students, inviting them and their contemporaries back to Cuba. Clearly, we had made a positive impression on our hosts.
It was my turn to address the crowd.
“Four months ago,” I said, “I greeted six American University students at the International Airport and accompanied them to Havana. Two days from now I will accompany six American University students from Havana back to the airport for their journey home. But these are not the same students they were four months ago. They are different now.”
This was an understatement. Particularly because I had videotaped the students throughout their semester abroad, tracking their exploration of Cuba, of Cubans, and of themselves, I had documented the profound changes I saw in each of them that night.
“My only hope,” I told the crowd, “is that we have enriched your lives as much as you have enriched ours.”
Particularly after having witnessed how our students have changed as a result of that semester abroad, that still is my hope.