02/24/2011 03:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cuba as a Learning Lab: Perspectives From Sarah Lawrence College's 10-Year Study Abroad Program

In January, President Obama announced an easing of restrictions on American travel to Cuba and people-to-people exchanges. Increasing two-way traffic, despite the persistence of the U.S. trade embargo of Cuba, is an extremely promising development from which both countries stand to benefit. I know that will be the case, as my institution -- Sarah Lawrence College -- is celebrating the 10th anniversary of a highly successful collaboration with the University of Havana, the longest continuously running study abroad program between Cuba and an American college or university.

Clearly there have been hurdles. Fluctuations in American policies toward Cuba; changes in the Cuban economy; and the effects of Hurricanes Charley, Wilma, and Ike have presented challenges to every Cuban exchange program and vanquished schools larger and wealthier than Sarah Lawrence. But for those of us who endured, the Obama administration's recent decision opens the way toward the greater artistic and academic collaborations fostered before the Bush administration tightened restrictions in 2003-4. At that time, the few colleges with surviving programs were prohibited from including students from other colleges; unable to sustain the numbers with their own student population, many exchanges shut down. In a recent ceremony at the University of Havana, celebrating the durable and successful collaboration between our institutions, our faculty coordinator, Matilde Zimmermann said, "Sometimes, with imagination and work, what seems impossible can actually happen. And so we were able to put Sarah Lawrence's little foot in the door that was rapidly closing and keep it open." With the announced changes in policy, we look forward to re-opening the doors of our own program to students from other colleges and universities.

Cuba offers a fascinating and complex laboratory of social and political transformation only 90 miles from American shores. Accordingly, our fall semester program in Cuba is built around a core course at the University of Havana's Center for the Study of Demography that focuses on Cuba's population and society, with field visits to schools, clinics, and community projects. The students also take a Spanish language course and two electives selected from a broad range in science, social science, humanities and the arts, offered by institutions throughout Havana. These electives are taken with Cuban students and taught in Spanish.

For years I have heard about our students' remarkable experiences in Cuba. But on a recent trip to Havana with a small Sarah Lawrence delegation, I had the opportunity to observe, first hand, the benefits of this study abroad program. If you are an American of a certain age (or a fan of Godfather II), traveling from Havana Airport to your hotel feels like entering a time warp, with '57 Chevys dotting the palm-tree lined roadways. The Hotel Nacional, which presides over the beautiful coastal boardwalk known as the Malecón, looks and feels like a set from a movie--an atmosphere heightened by the presence of cigar-smoking directors, hip, young fans, and movie stars attending the glamorous Havana Film Festival, which coincided with our visit in December.

Like some sections of Havana that feature gorgeously restored colonial structures next to rubble-strewn streets with dilapidated buildings, Cuba itself is a country of contradictions. During my five-day visit, my perceptions kept changing. The social concept of "rights," introduced with the '59 revolution -- that the state has a responsibility to provide education and health care to all citizens, but particularly its most vulnerable -- has created material improvements for many. The people we met take real pride in the country's social accomplishments in health care and education: life expectancy is 78 and literacy is very high. We visited Las Terrazas Bio Reserve, a federally sponsored bio reserve project that combines impressive work to preserve and enrich biodiversity while providing jobs and education to the local population. With our students, we toured the Latin American School of Medicine, dedicated to educating non-Cuban medical students in primary care to return to their countries to help underserved populations in their countries. Yet, although the social concept of rights does not necessarily conflict with individual rights, individual civil and political rights have expanded and contracted over the years since the revolution in Cuba, with free speech, assembly, and travel restrained. Unlike the Soviet example, in Cuba the art scene has remained incredibly vibrant; yet, as Julia Sweig puts it in one of the best books on Cuba (Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know), "artists and cultural producers have learned to carefully manage their self-expression" (160).

Sarah Lawrence students are noted for caring about social justice; their work on the realities of Cuban society has been serious and probing -- topics include "The Aging of the Population and Public Health"; "Food Production in Cuba: Its Challenges, Accomplishments, and the Future"; and "Diversity and Hidden Discrimination." Some of our students commented that in Cuba, inequities of race and gender stubbornly persist despite the overturning of class privilege. Several of the paper titles underscore the fact that official and unofficial stories sometimes contradict one another; part of education is learning to tell the difference.

From what we heard during our visit, Raul Castro is receptive to increased civic freedoms and pragmatic about the need for privatization of some businesses. Many Cubans, facing economic hardship exacerbated by both the recession and the U.S. embargo, feel these changes are coming all too slowly. The recent and encouraging easing of restrictions by the American government has not included talk of reversing the embargo, which has hurt the Cuban economy greatly. Nevertheless, it is a welcome development - one that will no doubt enable many people to experience the rich, often transformative experience that 120 Sarah Lawrence students have enjoyed over the past decade.