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US educators following President Obama’s lead to open new links with Cuba

Short on time? Here are the highlights:

  • US President Obama has taken concrete steps this year to improve bilateral relations with Cuba
  • Major international education organisations in the US have followed his lead and opened new programmes and initiatives to strengthen institutional links between US and Cuban institutions, and to expand student and faculty mobility
  • There is real optimism that these moves will lead to expanded educational travel between the two countries, but this is tempered with the knowledge that the political situation between the two countries could still change quickly

In March 2016, President Barack Obama became the first sitting US president in 88 years to travel to Cuba, signalling an ongoing commitment from both sides to improving bilateral relations in areas ranging from trade to education.

During his visit to the island nation, President Obama announced a new US$1 million commitment to create university partnerships between institutions in the two countries. According to the US Department of State, as part of Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, the money will support grant competitions to increase student mobility between Cuba and the United States in the fields of entrepreneurship, agricultural management, business and social innovation, environmental and sustainable energy, language learning, international trade and development, study abroad infrastructure, and cultural collaborations.

President Obama also commented on a number of other government initiatives to promote educational exchange between the US and Cuba:

“We’re moving ahead with more educational exchanges. Thanks to the generous support of the Cuban-American community, I can announce that my 100,000 Strong in the Americas Initiative will offer new opportunities for university students to study abroad, more Americans at Cuban schools and more Cubans at US schools. And going forward, educational grants and scholarships will be available to Cuban students. And in partnership with the Cuban government, we’ll offer more English language training for Cuban teachers, both in Cuba and online.”

Obama launched the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative in 2011 to increase the number of US students studying in the Western Hemisphere (and to boost the number of foreign exchange students in the US) by 2020. The Innovation Fund was established as a public-private partnership between the US Department of State, Partners of the Americas, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.

While the US trade embargo against Cuba still remains in effect, the US government has also made moves to ease travel restrictions for American citizens, in particular for educational travel. The United States and Cuba also reached an agreement in December 2015 to re-establish direct flights between the two countries for the first time in more than 50 years.

A statement from the White House adds, “On 15 March, the Department of the Treasury authorised Americans to travel to Cuba provided that, among other things, the traveller engage in a full-time schedule of educational exchange activities that result in meaningful interaction with individuals in Cuba. Previously, Americans were required to travel to Cuba under the auspices of an organisation and be accompanied by a representative of the sponsoring organisation.”

For the first time, Cuba was also included as a participating country in the Hubert H. Humphrey Fellowship Program for mid-career professionals from developing countries and the Benjamin A. Gilman International Scholarship Program to fund education or internships abroad for low-income US undergraduates. Young leaders from Cuba will also be invited to participate in the US State Department-sponsored Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative Pilot and English language specialists from the US will travel to Cuba to provide teacher training. In addition, the US government will offer online courses for Cuban teachers of English from the Ministry of Education and the Ministry of Higher Education later this year.

NAFSA has recently spoken out in support of President Obama’s efforts to normalise relations between the two countries, and urges further legislative action to permanently dismantle the embargo on Cuba. Executive Director and CEO Marlene M. Johnson said recently: “NAFSA welcomes the Obama administration’s visit to Cuba as a prelude to further normalising relations between the United States and Cuba…Having been fortunate to visit Cuba this past fall, a freedom currently denied to many American citizens, I witnessed first-hand an intense desire for US and Cuban higher education institutions to collaborate. Most study abroad programmes conducted by US institutions in Cuba closed their doors after executive action in 2004 instituted severe restrictions on academic travel to Cuba, abandoning one of the only avenues of understanding and collaboration that existed between our two countries.”

NAFSA has also recently announced its Cuba Engagement Initiative, a new programme designed to promote sustainable partnerships and academic mobility between US and Cuban institutions. The initiative consists of two projects: The Cuba-US Higher Education Dialogue Project and the Educators for Cuba Campaign. The annual NAFSA Conference and Expo in Denver from 29 May – 1 June will also feature a number of sessions aimed at showcasing programmes in Cuba and building institutional partnerships between the two countries.

Last year, IIE also launched its International Academic Partnerships Program (IAPP), which seeks to increase the number of international partnerships in the US and Cuba through a number of activities focused on understanding the Cuban higher education system. All accredited US colleges and universities are eligible to apply to the next application round, which opens in June 2016. IIE has also published a briefing paper on travel restrictions to Cuba for US institutions.

As part of IAPP, IIE led a delegation of 12 US higher education institutions to Cuba late last year. Expected outcomes include new faculty exchange, joint conferences, joint publications, study abroad, and faculty-led courses to Cuba.

“Based on our experience, institutions have been really eager to jump on a lot of this progress that President Obama has made. Some institutions are making their own forays, but the mechanics and logistics are still very challenging. There is still a need for a third party organisation like IIE to bring people down and make introductions,” said Clare Banks, IIE’s assistant director of International Partnerships in Higher Education.

“Institutions need to understand on-the-ground realities and the logistics. (Programmes in Cuba) need to be treated a little differently than regular study abroad. The most successful programmes are faculty led with a faculty member who really knows the country,” she added.

Indiana University was one of the institutions that traveled to Cuba with IIE in October 2015. “The delegation gave us the opportunity to enrich our knowledge of the higher education sector, as well as gain a better understanding of the constraints that US higher education institutions face in forging partnerships with Cuban institutions. For example, while students in the US may study abroad in Cuba, academic exchanges that would bring Cuban students to the US are not endorsed or supported by the Cuban government. Faculty exchanges are possible, but US institutions should be prepared to fully fund the visiting Cuban scholar,” said Shawn Conner, Indiana University’s associate director of international partnerships in the Office of the Vice President for International Affairs.

Mr Conner said that institutions interested in creating programmes should be aware of some of the challenges that come with educational travel in Cuba and prepare their students accordingly. There is a limited availability of hotels, for example, but students may be able to stay in a casa particular or private home. There is also limited cellular service and Internet access can be unreliable.

The IIE delegation also gave Indiana a chance to reconnect with the Universidad Central de Las Villas (UCLV), a Cuban university that it had partnered with prior to the tightening of travel restrictions to Cuba by President George W. Bush in 2004. As a result, Mr Conner said that several Indiana faculty members have been in communication with colleagues at UCLV on potential collaborative research projects and week-long study tours have been offered for undergraduate students in geological sciences, public administration, and entrepreneurship. Indiana and UCLV have also started to discuss renewing their partnership agreement.

In addition to the October 2015 delegation, IIE also partnered with the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) to lead a second delegation of presidents, provosts, and faculty from 17 US institutions to the International Congress of Higher Education in Cuba in February 2016.

“It was the first time a US delegation had a presence on the floor, where we had a booth at the conference. We just had different reps of the universities giving talks and students that would come and ask questions about the American higher education system,” says Shawn Patton, programme manager at the IIE Center for International Partnerships.

He added that it also provided the participating US college and universities a chance to interact with Cuban institutions located outside of Havana that would have otherwise been difficult to visit.

“There is a lot of interest from the Cuban side. However, (for US institutions) it is important to act slowly and become knowledgeable about the Cuban education system and the politics that surround the relationship between the US and Cuba,” he said.

Arcadia University, meanwhile, started its Cuba programme in spring 2013 and is the only US university to run a year-long program in Havana, according to Elena Moreno, Arcadia’s resident director for Arcadia in Cuba. She provides student support services and manages the institution’s relationship with the University of Havana. Students take a core course in US-Cuba relations as well as Spanish classes, in addition to classes in their major at the University of Havana. They also participate co-curricular activities and excursions that deepen their historical and cultural knowledge of Cuba.

Ms Moreno welcomes the recent progress made between the two countries. “My reaction to attempts to normalise US-Cuba relations was just like a dream come true. My mission when I took this job three years ago was that of bringing both peoples together, and the normalisation attempts are the best way to make that mission become a reality,” she said.

She added that for universities interested in traveling to Cuba, “first of all you need to learn the culture, and then start working on programmes.”

Mr Connor adds that US institutions are positive about the recent developments with Cuba: “The normalisation of diplomatic relations has been positive for educational travel. A number of US universities are offering short-term educational trips to Cuba under the people-to-people scheme which promotes meaningful interaction between American travelers and Cubans. We are beginning to see sessions on studying abroad in Cuba at professional conferences for international educators, a sign of the growing interest.”

However, he cautions that there is still a chance that the progress made thus far may halt. “Educators should be cautiously optimistic at this point about the future of US and Cuban relations. As international educators, we typically like to plan our study abroad programmes far in advance, but Cuba poses unique challenges. There’s a risk that our opportunities could cease abruptly depending on the outcome of the next presidential election or decisions at any time by the Cuban government to scale back cooperation with the US.”

“It is important for educators to recognise the reality that these changes may not be permanent. President Obama’s efforts have been achieved through executive order and could be undone under a new president and administration.”

For additional background on Cuba’s role in education in the Americas, please see our earlier report, “Cuba at the crossroads of greater international engagement.”

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