A Semester in Cuba – Through the Eyes of an Alum

SSA Alumni are having a game night with locals in Havana.
SSA Alumni are having a game night with locals in Havana.

A Semester in Cuba – Through the Eyes of an Alum

If you’ve been wondering what it’s like to study abroad in Havana, Cuba, you have come to the right spot. I sat down with Maggie Pearson, current SSA Student Services Advisor and Spring 2019 Cuba Alum, to learn more about student experiences in Havana. 

Deciding where to study abroad?

The choice came easily to Maggie when deciding which location to study abroad. 

“There had always been a sort of intuitive pull that I needed to go to Cuba. I wanted a different experience than the westernized European experience, and I was more looking for something completely different from the U.S. and anything I was used to.”

How is studying abroad in Cuba different from home?

While studying at la Universidad de Habana, she completed the Spanish Studies route through FENHI, enrolling in a Spanish language course, Cuban Film, Cuban Literature, and a Cultural Realities of Cuba course. Day-to-day life was at a different pace than life back home in the U.S., exactly as she had hoped. 

“Every morning, I’d wake up and have breakfast with my host mom, then get ready and walk to school. There was always music playing on the streets, and you’d see people waiting in lines at the shops, getting fresh produce, and other students walking to school. Everyone was always out, and it’s much more of an outdoor lifestyle.” 

Some significant differences included ensuring the water heater was on before a shower, not ingesting the tap water, less technology, and, most importantly, the collectivist culture. 

“Cuba had such a community and family-based atmosphere; everyone is helping everyone, and it’s very open. It was just so beautiful. They live much more as a big family, caring and looking out for each other. It’s a trustworthy environment with warmth, welcome, and a lack of fear. It makes you realize that we’re all just people.”

Cuban locals being sociable and demonstrating a sense of community playing games in the street.
Cuban locals being sociable and demonstrating a sense of community playing games in the street.

A Cuban host family while studying abroad

Living with a host mom in Cuba proved to add to the incredible experience. All host families in Havana will cook breakfast and dinner for students, though lunch is on your own. 

Becoming close to her host mom also helped improve Maggie’s Spanish language skills and comprehension. Talking for hours, she became accustomed to the Caribbean accent. She even met a partner during her term, which created an even higher necessity to learn the language more fluently. 

Without the option to travel outside Cuba – a student visa does not allow students to leave – Maggie discovered plenty of great activities around Havana. Some highlights included La Fábrica de Arte, walking around the city and exploring new places, trying new lunch spots, going to the Malecon, grabbing ice cream, and being outside more frequently. 

Sometimes going out of the city via the bus system, there are also excursions on the SSA program. Traveling to the easternmost side of Cuba or taking a taxi with the Resident Director to various places created great memories. 

Maggie posing with her peers during her semester in Cuba.
Maggie posing with her peers during her semester in Cuba.

Maggie’s study abroad recommendations

Some other recommendations Maggie has for a study abroad term in Cuba would be to try all of the foods, especially the fresh fruit. A typical meal is rice and beans (arroz moro) and lots of bananas, plantains, or tostones. Prepare to add oil, vinegar, and salt on top of most food, and consume plenty of sweet treats. 

Another recommendation is to immerse yourself in the culture as much as possible. Make friends with the locals, talk to professors, join clubs, go out with your host family, and branch out beyond the other international students to make the most of your time in Havana!

Finally, when asked how studying abroad impacted Maggie’s post-grad career, the answer was obvious. 

“In every way, I wouldn’t be where I am if I hadn’t studied abroad through SSA in Cuba (and Argentina). My life changed so much from studying abroad, and I was passionate about giving other students and people that life-changing experience. 

If everyone studied abroad and traveled more, of course, if they had the means, we would be a better place because when you go abroad, your mind opens, and you see the world and people for the first time. You learn so much about yourself, and I think it’s important for others to have this experience.”

If you were considering studying abroad before, we hope this article has helped influence your decision further. Truly creating a life-changing experience and building cross-cultural connections reaps benefits for all of our students. 

Please reach out to [email protected] with any questions and to get started in the application process. We hope to see you abroad soon! 

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Beth Tyler

INSTITUTIONAL RELATIONS Manager

Beth is your go-to contact for navigating the complex process of study abroad. 

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