Millington: U.S.-Cuba Relationship Boosts Interest in Study Abroad

Look no further than study abroad programs to see the effect the normalization of U.S.-Cuban relations has had on students and higher education.

“It’s almost like the gold rush of 1849,” said Tom Millington ’92, who works in Havana with American exchange students as a resident director with Spanish Studies Abroad — The Center for Cross-Cultural Study. He has seen interest in such programs increase since 2014, when the process of normalizing relations began.

Millington, who has worked with Spanish Studies Abroad since 2013, spoke with Allegheny about what it’s like in Havana now, what has changed in Cuba, Cubans’ love for Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, and more.

What has the repaired relationship between the two countries meant for study abroad programs like yours? Are you seeing more students interested in study abroad?

 “There has been a great increase in interest from American colleges and universities to send more students to Cuba. … So many universities are inquiring into how they can start programs in Cuba.

“On the Cuban side, we are seeing more families offer their homes to American travelers and students. All American students study at the Universidad de La Habana, but I am sure as the numbers increase we will see other institutions of higher learning outside the city and province make a concerted effort to attract American students to their campus.”

What has changed in your time running this program? What has stayed the same? 

“Good question. I would say immigration to Cuba has changed. It is now much easier for Americans to travel here. I have seen quite a few cruise lines stop in (but) these American visitors do not interact as much as I would hope with Cuban people. They come to visit the sites, make purchases here and there, and then they are off.

“Some things, however, have not changed, such as Cuban bureaucracy. Shortly after President Obama’s historic visit to Cuba, there was running joke. People said that he needed to visit Cuba every two weeks so that streets would be repaved and lighting fixed.”

Please talk about the benefit and importance of study abroad programs in general and study abroad in Cuba in particular.  

“Studies have shown that studying abroad, especially where speaking another language is involved, is extremely beneficial to cognitive development, dealing with ambiguity and creating empathy with other people. I am a big supporter of developing moral imagination in our students, and one good way of doing that is through study abroad.”

What is your goal for students who come through your program? 

“My goals are simple: students will improve their Spanish on this program and make Cuban friends. We have a Spanish-only policy that is in effect 24/7, and students have embraced it. They even speak to each other in Spanish when I am not around. Having them live with host families and partnering them up with Cuban students is a big help. I tell them that ultimately it is up to them (the students) to make the study abroad experience a successful one or not.”

What would Americans be surprised to learn about Cuba, or about how Cubans view Americans/America? 

“Cubans love Americans. There was never any animosity beyond the Cold War rhetoric that appeared in the party newspapers. Just after President Obama’s speech to Cubans at the historic Alicia Alonso theater, an Afro-Cuban journalist wrote a horrific article chastising President Obama using a very disrespectful tone. The response: many, many Cubans called in to let him know that he was out of line and extremely disrespectful. In short, they let him have it. A couple of days later he issued an apology.

“In the annual May 1 parade, I have seen many posters and banners with President Obama’s picture on it. He is loved here. But he is not the only American that Cubans treasure. Many people love Abraham Lincoln, and Henry Reeve, who fought with Cubans in the war for independence in the 19th century, is revered. He is, in many ways, the Thaddeus Kosciusko for Cuba. (Kosciusko was the Polish war hero who fought with the Americans during the Cuban Revolution).”

 What is your hope for Cuba and for study abroad there in the future? 

“My hope is that we can eventually provide Cuban students the same opportunity to study in the U.S. Cuban families have graciously opened their homes and hearts to American students, and I would like to see us do the same.

“Things look very good for a new and stronger relationship between Cuba and the United States, and I think that as that connection progresses, there will be more opportunities to expand study abroad for both Cubans and Americans. But as we develop more study abroad opportunities in Cuba, we must remember that it is important that our students speak Spanish. I have seen some American students come here with little Spanish, and Cubans have to make the adjustment to help them. It should be the other way around: American students must adapt accordingly in Cuba and speak Spanish. With these two concepts in mind, they should have a successful time abroad in Cuba.”