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First CMU student to study in Cuba in more than 50 years


During the summer, Ann Arbor sophomore Isabella Barricklow danced in the pouring rain as music blared and more than a dozen people gathered on a tiny porch in Havana, Cuba.

"Even though everyone was soaked, and a little cold, they were all smiling, making jokes and passing around a fifth of vodka," Barricklow said. “Cuba is a country unexplored by most Americans, and that left so much for me to discover. I loved the raw possibility the country offered.”

She is the first Central Michigan University student to study abroad in Cuba since travel restrictions between the United States and Cuba relaxed.

The U.S. maintained economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation from Cuba since the 1960s. In 2015, President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro marked the first meeting between the nations by announcing the countries would restore diplomatic relations, ending more than 50 years of isolation.

Barricklow spent a month at the University of Havana studying Spanish. Growing up, her mother was a Spanish teacher and taught her about Cuban culture.

The most noticeable culture difference was the daily rush of life, Barricklow said. Cubans appeared more laid-back and sociable than the Americans she knows.

When Barricklow visited a local WiFi store, the line was huge, but locals waiting in line didn't seem to mind. They took it as an opportunity to mingle.

These experiences helped Barricklow realize she didn't "always have to be so worried about time."

Being productive every minute of the day was not an added pressure, either.

"Cubans caught up with each other, even if they were strangers, they sat there with fans and read books or just enjoyed the moment to themselves,” she said.

In light of the upcoming presidential election, CMU students studying abroad this summer said they were curious about how natives of other countries view Americans.

Cuban locals were welcoming of visiting students, Barricklow said.

Because of the recent lift of travel and trade restrictions between Cuba and the US, Barricklow said the Cubans she met would mention the previous tension that existed between Cuba and America.

“(The tension) between our governments didn't affect the relationships we had. The people in Cuba are just kind and warm people who don't focus on where a person is from," she said. "Instead they look at the person for who they are and what they say."

More than 400 CMU students studied abroad this summer. Many are finding resources more accessible and making the journey abroad a priority, especially during the summer months.

Dianne De Salvo, Director of Study Abroad, said participating in a summer study abroad program enhances students resume and to give them an edge in competitive job markets.

"A sociology student studied in Mexico and Spain for her Spanish minor. After she graduated college she lined up an interview with a computer software company and landed the job with no previous job experience," De Salvo said. "They hired her because she was bilingual and had the cultural skills other candidates did not."

With more than 150 programs in 40 countries, she said there's affordable opportunities for almost all majors. De Salvo said several scholarships are available within the office and departments to help subsidize the costs of traveling abroad.

The calmness of Italy

Grand Rapids junior Kalin Kubiak spent six weeks in Reggio Nell'emilia, Italy studying Italian language, comparative health psychology and Italian cooking.

Kubiak hiked up Mount Vesuvius in Croatia and underestimated the distance. By the time the group she was with had walked almost 10 miles up the volcano, they were out of water and exhausted.

But the view made up for the mileage.

Travelling by herself forced her to open up to new people and experiences, Kubiak said, even if it made her feel uncomfortable.

She said being put in uncomfortable social situations gives her a professional edge in her future career as a physician assistant.

“There is a lot of times in my career where I will be put into uncomfortable situations, but I will have to figure out how to get through them,” Kubiak said.

Life was slower paced in Italy — she said the Italians took their time walking and eating. Rushing to finish a meal, or rushing to get somewhere, wasn't common.

"They would close their business for a couple of hours during the day just for lunch. They don't rush and are more concerned with the quality of life than just being the best," Kubiak said.

Kubiak said sometimes Italians loved Americans and wanted to talk with them. Other times they wanted nothing to do with foreigners.

"The men were a lot more interested in talking to us than the women here," Kubiak said. "Apparently Italian men are into American women. A lot of men would yell 'ciao bella' ('hello beautiful') at us when we walked by."

Learning Heritage in South Korea

Mount Pleasant sophomore Jean Han studied to Seoul, South Korea for six weeks to reconnect with her culture as an Asian-American.

She took a history course and an advanced Korean language course.

She wanted to learn about her heritage to be able to educate her fellow classmates. In turn, Han said she educated herself on accepting her heritage after growing up in a predominately white town.

"During middle school, I was teased a lot for being Asian, so there was a little part of me not proud of who I am," Han said. "I eventually realized how valuable it is to be proud of where I came from and to educate myself about my heritage so I could educate others on the importance of accepting diversity."

She said she felt at home in Southeast Asia.

“Not only was I able to learn more about Korean culture, but I learned about lifestyles from all over the world,” Han said.

The price of studying abroad

Study abroad prices differentiate based on the destination or program. The Drawing in Florence program is run by a CMU faculty member who is able to keep the program low-cost.

Barricklow used her Centralis Scholarship to help with the fees. She said Cuba was cheaper than she expected. She used the $6,000 program fee to pay for the airfare, accommodations, food, cultural events and weekend trips to different parts of Cuba.

“The program used the money they asked for extremely well and provided almost everything we needed or could have wanted,” she said. "It felt like we got a lot of experiences and adventures out of the fee that we paid."

Han handled her finances differently — she worked two jobs throughout her freshman year to save for her trip. She said having two jobs while taking 16 credits and being involved on campus took a lot of energy.

“I wanted to save up enough money to have a budget but to also not limit myself from experiencing new things because of money,” she said. “I also applied for scholarships which became a blessing.”