Caroline Bynum and Madeline Drake are having a spring semester unlike any other.
The Northeastern University students are living and working in Cuba, immersing themselves in the culture as they become the first U.S. undergrads to take part in such a program in the island nation, the school said.
Bynum and Drake, both 21, have been spending their days working for a scientific research organization, focusing on environmental protection while cataloging artifacts and touring the country.
Since arriving in January, they have gotten to know their surroundings well, and often walk down the block to one of the churro stands, where they can get a cone of the sugary fried treats for 20 cents.
“As someone who is interested in learning and understanding different cultures, I think this opportunity is important,” Drake told Metro in a phone interview from Havana. The experience, she said, has taught them about a “culture that may be misunderstood by Americans, as a result of the history between the two countries.”
That torn relationship is on the mend following former President Barack Obama’s decision to lift some trade and travel restrictions in 2015.
Bynum and Drake are among the more than 200 Northeastern students each year who participate in an international co-operative education program through the Presidential Global Scholarship (separate from that scholarship, more than 3,000 students complete a global experience anually). Called co-ops, the program alternates a student’s academic experience with hands-on work, and is one of Northeastern's signature offerings, said Joani Lamachia, an international affairs co-op coordinator.
Bynum, a third-year human services major, and Drake, a fourth-year international affairs major, have explored the island outside Havana. Most recently, the pair traveled to Sancti Spiritus, one of the oldest Cuban settlements as part of their work with the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, a non-governmental organization.
Núñez Jimenez was a noted Cuban anthropologist and revolutionary who was close to Fidel Castro. He is most famous for his year-long expedition through the Amazon and Caribbean in the late 1980s. During that time, Núñez Jimenez collected hundreds of artifacts along the way that provide a window into the many cultures and people he encountered.
Bynum and Drake have been cataloging these for the foundation’s museum — photographing, numbering and describing each piece.
“One of coolest artifacts is a canoe they actually took on the expedition,” which is on display in the museum, Bynum said. “There are necklaces from the Quechua [indigenous South American] people, baskets, ceramics… They brought back rocks, crocodile heads, tortoise shells — you get a really interesting picture of what they saw on the expedition.”
The two students have also been teaching English to foundation coworkers, which Drake called her “favorite part of the day” because she gets the chance to know them better.
Interactions with Cubans was a rarity for students until recently, even though study abroad programs have existed there for decades, said Northeastern professor José Buscaglia.
Bynum and Drake are getting “a much deeper understanding of how things work in Cuba, which is a country that in many ways has created its own model, it’s own way of functioning,” he said.
The students aren't taking classes but instead, through the co-op program, fulfilling their "experiential learning" requirement.
Buscaglia has been sending students to Cuba through university partnerships for more than 20 years. He pioneered a joint degree program between the University of Havana and SUNY Buffalo in New York when he taught there.
At Northeastern, he chairs the Cultures, Societies and Global Studies department and helps lead the university’s Cuba delegation.
By working at the foundation and traveling to its satellite offices outside Havana, Bynum and Drake have a unique chance to learn from what Buscaglia calls a “resilient” country.
“Their entire economy collapsed in the 1990s,” he said. “They went to the end of the world and they came back. A lot of people talk about Cuba and say it somehow stopped in the past, in the 1950s, which is totally a fallacy.”
Cuba, he added, survived the kind of “devastation that humanity runs the risk of facing. We have a lot to learn from them.”