By Irina Pino
HAVANA TIMES — Henry Wesley Burt is 21 years old and studies psychology at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. He speaks to us of his experiences as a student and his recent visit to Cuba.
HT: You study at a private university and that entails a number of prerogatives for students. Could you speak to us of those advantages?
HB: Many large universities in the United States are public, while some of the smallest are private. Thanks to this, I have classes with only 15-30 students. I like the individualized attention offered by my teachers and there are more opportunities for me to work with classmates in group projects. Private schools also offer many more scholarships and better opportunities to study abroad. And, for athletes like myself, there’s more emphasis on study than on sports. This is not the case in large, public universities, where athletes devote most of their efforts to sports instead of their studies.
HT: In Cuba, there are university admittance exams that test applicants on subjects like mathematics, history and Spanish and are very difficult to pass. Recently, the news reported on a scandal involving professors who were selling those exams for high sums of money. What do you think about this?
HB: It’s a shame, but it’s not something that’s rare in the United States. For instance, we have admittance exams that everyone in high school takes. The subjects are mathematics, science, writing and reading comprehension. There are many scandals, cases in which a student pays a smarter student so they can pass the test, they trade IDs. Also, sometimes the salary and status of a professor depends on how successful their students are (their grades, their ability to graduate, etc.). Some teachers have been found guilty of giving out the correct answers to their exams and homework to their students. In my opinion, the wellbeing of a working society is possible only if workers complete their training honestly. This training begins at school.
HT: What conditions must a student meet to be able to enroll at university?
HB: First, they must have some basic, humane qualities: honesty, respect for themselves and others and the desire to be good. Then, they must be enthusiastic about the work they do.
HT: There are several university enrollment systems in the United States. Explain some of them, and their advantages and disadvantages.
HB: Currently, there aren’t many different university enrollment systems. Every student has to complete their high school studies. In their last year, they have to complete summaries for each of the universities they want to enroll at. In these, they have to write several essays describing their talents as students and citizens. Then, a committee examines these summaries to decide who is to be selected. The advantage of this system is that everyone is examined on the basis of the same standards. The evaluation is the same for everyone and it is fair. The disadvantage is that there’s far too much demand and universities cannot accommodate all worthy candidates. Because of this, many students cannot enroll at the university of their choosing.
HT: I’ve heard some students become indebted. How do you pay for your studies?
HB: With bank loans and financial assistance from the government. It takes many years to pay those debts, decades even.
HT: You’ve told me you’ve traveled through university. What are the nature of these trips? Are they paid for by the university?
HB: They are study vacations. Here, in Cuba, I was studying the history of the Cuban revolution. In January of 2015, I was studying religious archeology in Israel and Palestine. A university professor takes a group of students there during the break. Sometimes, you can get a scholarship that covers the trip.
HT: Can students choose electives freely, in addition to the courses they have to complete for their majors?
HB: Yes. For instance, I study psychology, but I want to be a priest. The studies program at an institution like St. Olaf College is as follows: students have to attend several types of courses beyond their mandatory courses. Because of this, students are prepared to enroll in any major of their choosing.
HT: Are you allowed to make your decisions freely, even if it will ultimately work against you?
HB: Yes and no. As I mentioned, every student has to complete a range of different classes, about two or three in each academic department. But, if they want to specialize in something like art, theater, etc, even though those professions don’t pay well, that is their own decision.
HT: Do you have free time to do extra work at university and make money?
HB: Yes, I work at the admittance office, where I help high school students interested in enrolling at St. Olaf College. I get the minimum wage stipulated by US law, nine dollars an hour.
HT: Do you plan on practicing psychology after you graduate?
HB: As I mentioned, I want to be a priest. But, I think I’ll use the psychological counselling skills I’ve acquired through my education. Next year, I will enroll at a religious school where I’ll receive the training to become a priest.
HT: During your recent visit to Cuba, did you have close contact with the Cuban people and its current social situation? Did you come across differing opinions?
HB: Yes, on one occasion, at a hotel in Santa Clara. I was discussing Cuba’s economic situation with a waiter. He told me he earned a mere 20 CUC a month. I get that for only two hours of work in the United States. When I found out about his circumstances, I felt sorry for him. I hope the economic situation improves.
HT: You met with a number of Cubans, in the capital and other provinces. What’s your opinion about Cubans in general?
HB: You’re the nicest people in the world. I’ve travelled to many different parts of the planet, and I say this with sincerity. Everyone is ready to throw a party all the time. If there’s someone listening to music in a car, everyone around them starts to dance. It’s an incredible environment.
HT: What did they tell you about education in Cuba?
HB: That, even though it’s free, the government has control over all programs of study, such that students get a limited spectrum of information and aren’t allowed independent thought. I believe the most important part of education is freedom of expression. However, it’s positive that Cuba has no illiteracy thanks to the literacy campaigns of the 1960s. We didn’t have this in the United States.
HT: Did you notice any other problems in addition to the serious economic issues Cubans face?
HB: Something has to change. There has to be a space for debate and the willingness to change within the economy. It seems to me the government is the only one that grants permission to dissent and to change things. There has to be less rigidity in politics.
HT: What do you think about the fact Cubans migrate to overcome their problems?
HB: It’s a tragedy, but I sympathize with them. I understand they have different reasons for migrating, to escape political persecution, to earn money for their family, etc. I don’t think living in the United States is an answer to all their problems, because we’ve got our own problems.
HT: What political and social changes, from your point of view, would be opportune for Cubans?
HB: First and foremost, an end to the blockade. Second, a change of government. I hope Diaz-Canel will make many progressive changes. I think the country’s youth are hungry for change, and I hope the government will satisfy that hunger.
HT: One last question: what was your impression of Cuba before your visit and what is your impression now?
HB: My opinion of Cuba has changed a lot from the time before I came to visit. Because of the messages I was getting from television before my trip, I thought going to the island was dangerous for someone from the US. Now I see people are very kind and want to work with us. It’s a pleasure to continue working with you and I hope to be back soon.
HT: Thank you and good luck.