USF to bring first students to Cuba in 50 years

For many, choosing to attend college and getting in are accomplishments already. Add to that attending the first university-sponsored trip to Cuba in more than half a century, and the achievements begin to pile on a resume.

Recipients of the USF-exclusive Holcombe scholarship, which is funded by USF alumni Brad and Terry Holcombe, will be taking a study abroad trip to Cuba from Dec. 13 – 20. 

The opportunity for the trip was made possible in December, when Cuban President Raul Castro and President Barack Obama agreed to restore diplomatic relations.

According to Honors College Dean Charles Adams, this will be the first study abroad program to visit Cuba in more than 50 years. The students will be installing water purification systems in rural communities and providing eyeglasses to those who would otherwise not be able to afford or find high prescription glasses.

The trip was made possible by working with faith-based, non-profit organization Living in Faith, though the program will not require students to do mission work. Adams said the Holcombes have been to Cuba several times and wanted to combine their work with Living in Faith with the scholarship at USF.

“They’re going to take all of the Holcombe scholars that wish to go … and take them down, all expenses paid, airfare, lodging, food — everything,” Adams said. “We’ll stay in a hotel in Havana … and then, we’ll go out into the countryside for day trips.”

One issue Adams foresees is getting cooperation from the Cuban government to visit the countryside. Though there is a tentative itinerary, Adams said the government might decide to restrict access, and the exact details are still in the works.

“We’re not sure exactly what we’re going to do — the Living in Faith people are working out the details of that now,” he said.

However, Holcombe said the group will be able to see more than the average tour group because the program is being coordinated by the Cuban Council of Churches, which includes all of the denominations of churches in Cuba.

“If you’re a tourist, you don’t get to go out into rural Cuba and very poor communities and Churches,” Holcombe said. “Taking this trip, (they’ll) get to see a piece of Cuba that, if you were to jump on a trip to Cuba, you just wouldn’t get to see.”

There will also be an academic portion of the trip, of which Adams will be in charge.

“There will be community development activities, along with the academic part of the program,” he said. 

That academic aspect will include a series of pre-departure meetings to prepare the scholars. Various individuals from around campus, whether authorities on the culture or those of Cuban descent, will be invited to provide the students with a background on the country before they leave.

Additionally, the students will be enrolled in a one-credit-hour course for the duration of the trip.

Holcombe, who has been involved with Living in Faith for nearly 10 years, said the trip will be important for the students to gain a global understanding.

“I expect it to open their eyes a little bit,” he said. “I hope they’ll gain an understanding of the potential for a Cuban relationship with the United States.”

He said he is hopeful that the animosity between Cuba and the U.S. will not continue. However, he said, though Raul Castro is 85, the former system will not simply die away.

“Everybody in Cuba isn’t necessarily for opening the gates, “ Holcombe said. “But I think everybody is for a better relationship with the American people.”

Obama and Castro made such an opportunity for change possible with their decision, and talks for creating the program began last spring between Adams and the Holcombes. 

Holcombe said Adams suggested the idea of a trip, but it seemed far-fetched because Holcombe wanted it to be “under the umbrella of study abroad.” Later, when the opportunity arose, Adams was again enthusiastic.

“In August, he sent me a note, and said, ‘I think it’s time, I think it’s time.’” I said, ‘No, I still don’t believe you,’” Holcombe said. “Then we had some meetings going on through September, and he was able to pull it together.”

Relations between Cuba and the U.S. have been minimal for the last half a century because of the animosity created by the Cuban Embargo. John F. Kennedy implemented the embargo in 1962 after Fidel Castro seized power of Cuba and “nationalized more than $1 billion in American assets,” according to CNN.

Since then, American businesses have been restricted from doing business in Cuba and most Americans have not been allowed to visit the island nation. According to the U.S. Treasury, “American citizens can face up to a $65,000 fine for spending money in Cuba.” 

Holcombe said the opportunity to see Cuba the way it is — the way it has been for the last 50 years — will be a very important opportunity for the scholars.

“Cuba is going to begin to evolve. For the better or the worse? That depends on who you talk to,” he said. “Cuba as it has been for the last 50 years is going to begin to fade away. There’s a window here to go to see Cuba as it has been and how it has evolved for the last 50 years.”