New York Students in Havana, Cuba

Interview by Regina Cano

Maya Anderson

HAVANA TIMES — I had an enjoyable meeting with the resident and alternate director of the Sarah Lawrence College academic program with the University of Havana, in which students from the United States are enrolled. The following is our interview.

HT: Tell us something about yourself, Sarah Lawrence and Cuba?

Maya Anderson: My name is Maya Anderson, I’m 27 and I first came to Cuba in 2005 as a student at Sarah Lawrence College.

Like many universities in the United States, Sarah Lawrence allows students to spend a semester studying abroad, but it’s one of the few that sends a new group to Cuba every year.

From the beginning I liked Cuba. I was a little “hooked” and sad. I could return legally, because I’m also a French citizen, but it was still very expensive for a student who didn’t have savings or a job. Nevertheless, I was able to come back with the help of a French university to participate in the First Latin American Congress of Anthropology, in 2007.

After I graduated in 2006, I started studying Cuban Literature, something I’ve devoted myself to, body and soul. In 2009, the director of the “Sarah Lawrence College in Cuba” academic program — who’s a distinguished historian and a specialist in Cuba, the Cuban Revolution and Latin American — gave me the opportunity to work as her assistant, and the following year I began to run the program.

HT: How does the agreement work?

MA: In 2000 the agreement was signed between the Population Studies Center (CEDEM) of the University of Havana and Sarah Lawrence College (SLC). Since 2001, SLC began sending small groups each year, between August to December. Rarely are there more than 20 students under our supervision.

There are years when students come only from SLC, but students also come from universities that don’t have permission to send them directly, so they join the group under the responsibility of Sarah Lawrence. We bring young people from all across the US, people from different backgrounds and with a variety of interests.

There have been several delegations since 2010. SLC’s administration and those of other universities have worked to strengthen cooperation with the University of Havana.

Now things seem to be more open; there’s even talk about organizing exchanges of professors and having joint scientific conferences, as well as other academic programs for sending more American students in the second semester.

HT: How has this enriched the students, and is it bilateral?

MA: I should note that these programs don’t allow any Cuban students to go to New York.

For any student, study abroad is enriching…it’s a privilege; but for these students it’s essential. They learn about their own culture and values by being away from them. By wanting to discover others, they end up discovering themselves.

Cuba represents something that is banned for Americans, who are used to going wherever they want in the world. The fact that they can’t travel freely to Cuba creates a kind of mystique around it, a tantalizing aura.

They see the SLC program as a way to circumvent that ban. Many of them even talk about how going on the trip to Cuba was one of the encouragements for them to attend the university at all.

When I was in school, SLC had the motto:  “You are different, so are we.” This program is part of that “difference” that also attracts students.

I’d say that between 10 and 15 US universities now have academic programs in Cuba, which isn’t that many considering there are thousands of universities in the US.

Their relationships with Cuba make these few universities excel and ensure them a reputation as being elite. Meanwhile, they’re commercializing on many left concepts such as being “alternative” or “revolutionary.”

They sell the program as an academic product to students and families that have values and feel identified with them. This is why they’re willing to pay so much money, it’s because they see it as a social as well as a financial investment.

In this case, it’s all associated with the image of Cuba. The schools seek to build themselves up as good businesses.

But to be honest, I have to thank that same system that I’m criticizing because it allowed me to discover Cuba.

In the end, perhaps unwittingly, Cuba is helping those US universities to stay afloat — in a period that’s economically critical for many of them — and to make more money.

HT: What does Cuba get out of all this?

MA: Cuba is also doing good business. It’s no secret that foreign students pay tuition for each subject they are enrolled in at the University of Havana.

The agreement stipulates that each faculty receives what’s due to them for the international students subjects enrolled in their programs. Likewise, the CEDEM (which is the sponsoring organization and the entity responsible for the agreement) receives a percentage of this.

The programs for international students also contribute financially to agencies that have suitable housing for them. They house these students for either a semester or a whole year.

HT: What subjects do the US students take?

MA: The students don’t take subjects according to any major, but classes in several different majors and even at different faculties.

Theoretically they’re free to take any subject, though in practice the faculties in which most of them are enrolled are philosophy, history, biology and recently economics. However, some of them have taken classes in physics, Cuban literature, child psychology, art history, etc.

They also receive a weekly class at the CEDEM called “Cuba: Population and Development.” This was designed specifically for US students. It has components on demography, Cuban society, health, education and economics.

SLC also has agreements with other institutions; ones such as the Superior Institute of Art and the Foundation of New Latin American Cinema. These are for students pursuing more specialized artistic disciplines.

HT: What relationships do the students develop with the world of Cuba?

MA: I stay in touch with previous students through email. I send them things from the press to keep them somewhat up to date on things. Many come back into the program, but if one knows how to recognize them…it’s like promoting dialogue and in this way developing oneself.

They stay at a guest house. All year round there are US students staying there. The young people are happy to be there – and privileged, in my opinion.

We have always had good experiences at these places. On many occasions the workers become second families for the students. Ties and friendships are created that function as a nice bridge between them and Cuban society, which can seem a bit hermetic at first.

HT: What is Sarah Lawrence College?

MA: It was founded in the late 1920s. In the beginning it was only for women, but in 1968 they began to admit students of both sexes.

Today it is known for its values of tolerance for diversity of all kinds – especially sexual diversity, I’d say.

When I was in school, I remember there was a lot of controversy about the lack of ethnic/racial diversity within the student body. Following some acts of vandalism by students, people organized lectures, demonstrations, and discussions between students, teachers and administrators to see how we could fix that problem in a consensual manner.

At that time there were many white students, because it was and remains one of the most expensive and exclusive universities in the country. It excludes many students from lower social-economic levels who don’t meet the double requirement of academic excellence and having enough money.

The admission requirements are rigid and the academic standards high. One can be rejected or accepted, and there’s a fairly high level of rejection.

Fortunately we’ve been working on socio-economic integration and diversity. There have been more opportunities opened for people with fewer resources and help for them to get scholarships. The rest — thousands of them — are able to take out loans.

One of the main educational ideas is the interdisciplinary character of the instruction. Rather than pursue one major, students may enroll in more subjects that more closely relate to their interests, even if those are in a different academic field.

One can mix science and the theater, for example, and after four years they’ll graduate with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree, which is the university diploma for general studies. Many recent graduates have needed to specialize later on.

Looking critically at this system, I think it is designed to keep people in school for at least ten years. In this way they continue getting deeper in debt to the banks. It’s a very effective way to fool them, because later they’ll join the workforce with one concern: getting a good salary to live on and to pay back their debt so they can borrow more money.

I did it so that I could attend the university, and I don’t regret anything, but it was too expensive an investment. Now money has become important to me because if I can’t get a job I can’t pay my loan installments, and that would jeopardize my parents since they were the ones who signed the contract as guarantors.

It’s a clever way to orient a society, to train a generation to feel frightened and insecure from early on. They begin to understand the rules.

HT: What is your work and life like?

MA: As program director, I’m employed five months a year — twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week — to coordinate the logistics and financing of the program.

During that time, I’m responsible for the students, their academic as well as their social functioning. I coordinate all the group activities, arrange cultural encounters and extra-curricular discussions, etc.

It’s important to keep them active, especially since there are always some who need a little more of a push to get them involved with Cubans. The only thing I don’t do is teach. I’m not a teacher.

Like many jobs, this doesn’t come with a contract or any kind of guarantee. There’s no job security. They would write me a letter every year stating my position, dates of employment, salary, and committing to cover my airfare, health insurance, room and board, etc. while I’m in Cuba.

At the beginning, the pay convinced me that I could deal with all the rest, but once the program is over I have to leave Cuba.

Luckily, as a student, I could get health insurance. But after two years of coming to my country without having a home, no job guarantee for another year and no insurance, I decided that the third time was going to be it.

This work separated me from my partner. When one is alone, the instability can give you a sense of freedom, but once everything is shared with another person, you can no longer sustain that lifestyle.

One time we both managed to come to Cuba. Sarah Lawrence helped with the airfare. We were here for six months, which allowed him to write his doctoral thesis. I was working, but when he had the opportunity to go to France he couldn’t travel without losing his residence in Cuba, and everything got complicated.

HT: Talk about your experience with Cubans?

MA: When I was younger I was very idealistic. For me, like for many young people in the world, Cuba represented an alternative social and economic model, one that was attractive for its differences, which supposedly represented independence from the capitalist socio-economic model.

Maya Anderson

I wanted to see the ideals of egalitarianism in practice. I didn’t find what I expected, but I wasn’t discouraged either. Cuba encouraged me to want to dig deeper, in the personal and academic sense, because before coming I had studied a set of things that didn’t go in any particular direction. Then I came to Cuba and got into Cuban literature, and that was what prompted me to continue studying “my specialty.”

I got to know and like many people. They were impacted in their lives by certain issues that were unexpected to me: food, housing, the dual currency, etc.

I felt committed to those people I knew. I wanted to help, understand, and empathize with them. I also admired — and still admire — them for the lives they lead, which are different from mine. I think they taught me a lot of things, especially things regarding the value of family and friendship.

Then I realized that year after year the groups of student are experiencing a similar process of discovery and intellectual, emotional, personal and social commitment.

Although it could get I little repetitive, it was also something nice to see. It meant that the cultural immersion was working to create greater understanding between the two sides, not for everyone but for the vast majority of them. That’s something I’m convinced of.

I could see this in the lasting and rewarding relationships that were established between the various community projects and some of our students. The students never missed their weekly meetings with the children and elderly who were involved in those projects.

These contacts not only helped the youth to better understand Cuban life, they also made Cubans share their thoughts with those young US citizens in a healthy and creative environment, through music, art or learning.

These are the people who make these programs worthwhile for both sides.