This December I was fortunate enough to participate in a study abroad trip to Cuba. The class was focused on exploring the paradigms and paradoxes between social welfare systems and agriculture in the country.
Throughout the fall semester, our class met once every other week, addressing different issues and history related to social work and agriculture. Each student chose a topic to "become an expert" on before our departure and then further research while in Cuba. I studied nutrition and how it has changed with the growth of accessibility of agriculture. I learned the ins and outs of La Libreta, which is the ration book granted to every citizen. Its purpose is to provide the Cuban people with adequate access to food staples such as rice, beans, beat, eggs, bread, sugar and cooking oil.
We spent a lot of time preparing for the trip, reading multiple books and engaging in various discussions. Due to the strict travel rules for people from the United States, our trip had to be organized through an organization that works with the Cuban government. In Cuba, we were constantly busy, getting bussed from one place to the next, always accompanied by our Cuban tour guides.
Cuba is still a mystery to me. It's difficult to describe the experience we had. We saw countless beautiful, prosperous gardens and farms, utilizing techniques that we in the United States are just beginning to figure out.
One of the most interesting discussions I had while in Cuba was about the poverty line. It is the hardest question for a Cuban because of how we define poverty within the United States: homelessness, unemployment, no health care, hunger - things that don't even exist in Cuba. Those services are available to everyone, unlike the privatized welfare system we have in the United States.
It was a challenge to be in a big group all the time. We definitely dominated every place we went. But, we were able to experience many things that the more causal traveler wouldn't have been able to do, especially in Cuba. Our program mandated that we always stay as a group, so there was little time for individual exploration of the culture. Yet, whenever a Cuban found out we were from the United States, they made a point to tell us that they do not consider us to be the U.S. Government, that they treat us as friends. This is a reciprocal feeling, as the Cuban people are not what many of us from the United States would believe them to be. They are simply people too. People who want to explore the world, meet new people - and dance.
Despite Cuba's issues, it is one of the most progressive countries when it comes to sustainable agriculture. There is something growing in every spare acre of Cuba, the green scenery was unbelievable. Also, much of the agriculture is implemented into community development programs in an effort towards sustainability and togetherness. Cubans are incredibly innovative, creating something beautiful out of nothing. This kind of community involvement is something I would like to implement in my social work career. I am a strong believer in the connection between growing the food that you eat. It is empowering and paves the way to healthy eating.
As for those who aren't sure if they should engage in a study abroad experience, leaving the country is the best thing I've ever done for myself. And I feel the same way every time I leave my own home to experience a new place. It broadens your perspective on everything, from the world to the people in it to yourself. Another piece of advice is to engage in some sort of service while abroad. It will give you a deeper understanding of the needs of a community, and it will add more meaning to your experience because you have reached out to others.