A Conversation in Cuba with a US University Student

By Irina Pino

Henry Wesley Burt

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.

Henry Burt with some Cuban students.

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.

3 thoughts on “A Conversation in Cuba with a US University Student

  • Díaz-Canel is a placeholder. He has no leadership ‘cred’ on his own. He is roundly seen as the temporary successor until a true leader emerges in the wake of Castro’s death or retirement. That leader is out there somewhere but keeping his or her head down for the time being. Ambition for the top job that Raul coveted for so long in Cuba is a ticket nowhere except maybe the shark-infested waters off the north coast of the island where Camilo Cienfuegos plane allegedly ‘crashed’.

  • Thanks for interviewing Henry Wesley Burt, Irina! My oldest daughter almost attended St. Olaf’s…that and Clark U. in Worcester were her final two choices–but she chose Clark! (I wanted her to attend St. Olaf’s, but in the end she wanted a more urban campus.)
    Re: the literacy issue, of course whether up here or down in Cuba there is always a small sector of the population that remains functionally illiterate, whether because of developmental disabilities, instability of home and family, etc. Furthermore, many folks up here graduate from both high school and college with woefully inadequate education for either effective citizenship or abilities to reason. In both countries there are also now some major problems. In the U.S.A. teachers have been made the scapegoats for larger social problems, such as the instability of many families, lack of resources placed in public education, etc. Note, for example, the utter collapse of public education in the state of Kansas, where funds have been severely cut for both physical plant and for teachers, to the point where tens-of-thousands of Kansas teachers have either retired early, moved to nearby states, or left the field entirely; the result is that there are now thousands of unfilled vacancies in elementary, middle- and high-school teaching. Kansas has lowered its requirements to the point where a candidate can now teach with only a high school education! Elsewhere, in some bankrupt urban school districts classes have skyrocketed to 45+ students per class. What sort of education takes place under such circumstances. In Cuba, because of the low pay many seasoned teachers have migrated to the tourist industry, leaving gaps in the field (though not as bad a Kansas).
    Diaz-Canel is hardly a hack. He would be a wise choice as either a transitionary- or more permanent leader, depending on the results of his leadership.
    Good luck, Mr..Burt, whatever direction you choose after graduation!

  • It’s nice to hear from a young American who is not stunningly inarticulate and ignorant of the world and his own country. That said, there are a few errors which need correction:

    1. There is no blockade of Cuba. Get a dictionary and look up the word. The US has a very limited trade embargo.

    2. Cuba’s claim to have zero illiteracy. Simply put, that’s bullshit. The Cuban government does not allow independent researches the freedom to confirm this claim. The claim is presented as fact. They toss in the famed Literacy Campaign of the early 1960’s as if that provided some kind of proof. Sending some thousands of students out to the countryside to teach, and then test, the illiterate peasants to read to some very minimal standard is not the same thing as eliminating illiteracy. There is more to functional literacy than being able to read back a prepared test administered by a student-teacher who is obliged to demonstrate a 100% success rate in teaching literacy. Furthermore, the majority of Cubans alive today were born after the Heroic Literacy Campaign of the 1960s. Who is teaching them? Reference to the Literacy Campaign is meaningless for those Cubans born after the campaign ended.

    3. Henry says it would be nice if Cuba had a change in government, a sentiment most Cubans would echo. Then he goes and spoils it by naming Diaz-Canel, who is a member of the current government and a career party hack. If he become the leader after Raul Castro retires, Diaz-Canel will be a continuation of the previous 6 decades of failed governance, not a new step.

    In short, it sounds like young Henry has learned his lessons from his Cuban handlers very well during his school trip to Cuba.

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