By Lautaro Grinspan, news staff

Two days before the beginning of President Barack Obama’s historic trip to Cuba in March, another visit to the island country was wrapping up. A three-person Northeastern delegation, tasked with laying the groundwork for new partnerships with Cuban institutions, was coming home.

The Havana returnees included José Buscaglia, chair and professor of languages, literatures and cultures; Michael Ferrari, director for government relations and public affairs; and Geoffrey Trussell, director of the Marine Science Center.

On May 10, representatives from Cuba’s Fundación Antonio Núñez Jiménez (FANJ) and the University of Havana arrived on campus to officially sign agreements, creating a range of new academic opportunities—from global co-​​ops to research—for Northeastern students and faculty.   

Buscaglia, originally from Puerto Rico, arrived at Northeastern in the fall of 2015. Before that, he was director of Caribbean, Latin American and Latino studies at Buffalo State College, where he directed a study abroad program in Cuba for 18 years. He said Northeastern’s new partnerships with Cuba take the study abroad concept to new levels.

“Most of the universities from the U.S. that currently take students to Cuba do so through standard study abroad programs with different degrees of difficulty,” Buscaglia said. “For Cuba, those programs represent more than anything a way of making money to sustain the institutions that host them. It’s a client relationship based on a service that is provided.”

Diplomatic progress wasn’t a particularly important enabler, although the signing of the new partnerships in Cuba is happening in the context of warming relations between the island country and the U.S., Buscaglia said.

“On the Cuban side of things, looking back on the 20 years, things have changed very little,” Buscaglia said. “It’s still very complicated, very slow. Some things have become slightly easier, but it’s still a minefield.”

At the FANJ, an environmental research nongovernmental organization, co-op students will conduct research on the risks climate change and rising seas pose to Cuba and to some of its unique topography. Students will spend two months in Havana and two months among coastal communities near the Zapata Swamp on Cuba’s southern coast.

Unlike most co-ops, the FANJ co-op will be a team-based endeavor, where two to three students with different disciplinary backgrounds will work together.

“We want to take a student from the Three Seas Program to document biodiversity,” said Buscaglia. “We want to send a student who would be a social scientist who would be at the same time able to work with the fishing communities who live around the coast. And then a liberal arts student who might have other ideas as to how to contribute or interact to local communities. They would join a team of researchers on the Cuban side.”

Under the agreement with the University of Havana, students will be able to go on co-op at its School of Communication and conduct marine science, environmental sustainability and social science research, according to a May 11 news @ Northeastern article. An experiential year abroad program is also being developed where students will be able to take classes at the university and then spend a second semester working at a Cuban government agency or with a private business

The new co-ops in Cuba will start in the spring 2017 semester. All students interested in participating should have an advanced Spanish level, according to Buscaglia.

Students currently have the chance to pursue global experiential learning opportunities in almost every country around the world, but Buscaglia thinks Cuba has something unique to offer.

“I’m not going to say that students should consider Cuba over other destinations,” he said. “I will say that Cuba is a place in the U.S. imaginary that triggers a lot of interest and excitement. […] We have a very limited chance to reset the relationships between Cuba and the U.S. Students who go to Cuba would have the opportunities to participate in a process of certain historical significance and contribute positively to that.”

Junior civil engineering major Tavish Fenbert knows firsthand what makes Cuba so special. Last summer, he conducted a research project in the island studying natural disaster resilience. Although he spent most of his time in Havana, he also visited a small fishing town called Surgidero de Batabano.

“Cuba is at a unique point in its history,” he said. “The people there are welcoming and curious, interested in talking to tourists to get their perspectives on the world. The opportunity to talk politics with the people of a non-democratic nation is something [that makes] Cuba a great place to study abroad.”

It’s not all rosy though.

“I did get a little sick from eating off the street,” said Fenbert. “But I will eat street food again next time.”

For Professor Andrea Raynor, Cuba was the perfect setting for her photography Dialogue of Civilizations program, which she led to Havana in 2012 and 2013.

“Cuba is a fantastic place to photograph for many reasons other than the old cars,” she said. “Since it’s such a warm climate, people lead much of their lives outside, so you encounter many people, families and kids playing baseball in the street.”

During her two years taking students to Cuba, though, the bureaucratic process could be a slog to get through.

“A challenge [we faced] for traveling to Cuba was the bureaucracy to get there in the first place,” she said. “Hopefully, this has gotten better.”

Photo courtesy Jorge Royan, Creative Commons