When we think of a classroom, playing baseball with Havana residents in a Cuba park as a goat roams in the outfield isn’t what usually comes to mind.
This scenario was one of many vivid community engagement adventures Niagara University students experienced during their two-week research course in Cuba this spring. Many left Havana wanting to give more than they received.
On Thursday night, several Niagara University faculty and students shared insights about Cuba during an event in the Castellani Art Museum.
Professor David Reilly is director of international studies at Niagara University and chair of the Department of Political Science. He talked with WBFO about one student's touching story.
“When she first was traveling to Cuba and we were at the airport, she had two extremely large suitcases,” Reilly said. “We had told them to travel light, and so I was surprised to see that but I didn’t say anything at the time, we just went with it. I didn’t find out until we were almost at the end of the trip that this student actually had brought clothing and resources to give away while she was there.”
The student is originally from Jamaica. Reilly said her experiences growing up inspired her to give to locals during her trip. She didn’t bring anything back with her, leaving entire suitcases at one of the community centers in Havana.
Student research topics included Cuban cinema, African roots of Cuban culture and mental health practices in Cuba. Reilly said it was a transformational experience for some travelers.
“We had one student who was from the College of Business, and probably the staunchest defender of capitalism in our class,” Reilly said. “At the end of the trip, he said, and I’m quoting from him here, that ‘Cuba, in many ways, can be argued to be a much richer nation in terms of appreciation for life and happiness than America is, which makes it apparent to me that material possessions do not encompass the wealth of a person or nation.’”
Cuban culture is radically different from American lifestyles in many ways. Reilly said Cuba has boosted tourism since opening its doors to America. Reilly and other faculty made an earlier trip to Cuba in early 2015:
“We had planned the trip before things opened up, so we were shocked when there was a change in U.S. policy. Things had just started to shift, and so, there was a real excitement among the Cubans. But looking now in retrospect, things have shifted so dramatically from even February of 2015 to May of 2016 when we were there the second time.”
Thursday’s event included five student presentations and the unveiling of a new photography exhibit by Roberto Chile, titled “Fidel is Fidel,” featuring a collection of 17 images depicting Cuban leader Fidel Castro in his later years.