Adventures in Cuba with My Journalism Students

Ludwig photo

Last month, I led 11 Baruch College journalism students to Cuba as part of a class on covering emerging entrepreneurship in that island nation. The lessons learned for both me and my students were profound.

The purpose of the trip was to report on the recent economic changes instituted under President Raul Castro, especially in the new small-business sector of so-called cuentapropistas, which now number close to 500,000 Cubans, triple the number in 2010. We arrived at the most opportune time—just weeks after President Obama and President Castro announced their historic détente, which will open Cuba to more American goods and visitors and established formal relations between the countries. These changes are likely to have a profound effect on the Cuban economy. Whether they will spread to the political arena is less clear.

My students learned about the emerging entrepreneurial sector and the vagaries of being a so-called cuentapropista, both through Cuba Emprende, a private non-profit that helps train entrepreneurs in Cuba, and from small family-run businesses. These businesses ranged from restaurants to companies like Nostalgiacar, which operates a car service and refurbishes vintage automobiles, to a party planning company. We discovered Cuban ingenuity, honed during the extreme austerity of the post-Soviet so-called Special Period, at Casa Vera, the guest house for foreign students where we stayed and where neighbors have banded together to form an informal cooperative, and at La Finca Marta, an experimental sustainable farm that supplies many of Havana’s top paladares, or private restaurants. We found paquete, the must-have gray-market digital package of entertainment—from soap operas to video games to local advertisements—that Cuban’s share among each other via USB and other computer storage devices. The excellent articles produced by my students can be seen here

Nostalgiacar photo                                                  Reporting at Nostalgiacar

The lessons I learned as a teacher were also noteworthy. After teaching journalism at Baruch for over 15 years, this was the first time I had tried anything of this kind: a project tightly honed around one theme that was at once highly focused, collaborative, practical and intensive. We would be in Cuba for a week and the entire course lasted just three weeks in which we worked together every day. Teaching journalism is in many ways a skills-based discipline; students must learn how to report, write, use a variety of databases with the aim of understanding the news and its context and producing publishable articles about it. But, when teaching students how to cover a specific beat—such as the environment, education or entrepreneurship—content also becomes key.

This was the first course I had taught that was built around a trip, a project in group reporting in which we would share our sources, our notes, our observations; the experience turned out to be extremely valuable. In the coming week, I would learn a great deal about the power of both mutual respect and high expectations and the pedagogical benefits of teamwork and intense collaboration.

Preparation for the trip was daunting. I began planning in January of 2014, a process that lasted a year and involved hundreds of emails and phone calls, as well as navigating the thickets of both Cuban government regulations and a large city university bureaucracy. While I had unwaivering support from my department and administration, and the help of many able Cuban colleagues, I found myself wishing, more than once, that I had never begun the process. But by the fall, I had been able to nail down a rich itinerary filled with everything from field trips to top speakers, including leading academics from the Univ. of Havana to the country’s best filmmakers; an affordable and safe place to stay; and travel arrangements.

This being Baruch College, one of the most diverse colleges in the country, I corralled a highly diverse group of students; most were African-American or Latino. Virtually none of my students was able to afford the cost of the trip. So the preparations included the complicated calculus of figuring out who could get funding through their existing scholarship and honors programs, as well as collecting the funds from various programs, and nailing down funding for the few students who did not receive academic scholarships.

During the first of several planning sessions with prospective students, one young men asked whether I would impose a curfew during our trip—a question that sparked a new worry: What would it be like chaperoning a dozen twenty-somethings in Havana?? In a country where neither our cell phones nor credit cards would work, and where Alan Gross, a U.S. citizen, had spent five years in a Cuba jail, was I going to wake up one morning only to discover that a student had disappeared? Would I get stuck in Cuba for weeks if one of them lost her passport?

Gradually, as I began working with the students, those fears evaporated. Our trip was part of a three-week mid-January intensive course that began with one-week of research and lectures by experts, and culminated in a week of intensive writing. Even before the course began, I explained to the students that in addition to the trip’s pedagogical purpose, they would be serving as ambassadors for Baruch College; any major hiccups, I explained, would jeopardize future trips. I also shared with them the wonderful opportunities ahead of us, as well as the pitfalls of traveling to a foreign country with which we had strained diplomatic relations.

By the time the first week of planning and lectures began, I was beginning to enjoy the process. I had lined up a roster of U.S. experts to speak about Cuba, which helped crystallize the goals of our trip. My students appeared in class on time and fully prepared, having read most of the readings I had given them. They peppered our speakers with excellent questions.

We set off on January 10. When I got to LaGuardia for the first leg of our journey to Havana, via Miami, I discovered that two of our students had headed to JFK by mistake. Yet, strangely, I was feeling quite relaxed. It helped that I had invited Gisele Regatao, my wonderful former graduate student and now the culture editor at WNYC to accompany me as an adjunct professor on the trip.

We arrived in Havana on a Sunday afternoon. And, after an early dinner at Casa Vera, our charming guest house, we headed to the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, an autonomous cultural organization funded by foreign philanthropists, where our students heard a lecture and slide show about Cuban society and culture. Before my departure, my colleague Ted Henken who has traveled to New Orleans with his students on a number of occasions, suggested what sounded like an exhausting solution to my fears about chaperoning 20-somethings in a city known for salsa, nightlife and partying: Plan something every night, he advised, and give students the choice of going with you—and having their transportation taken care of—or figuring things out on their own. (Ted’s excellent book Enterpreneurial Cuba also served as an important resource for our research.)

Heeding Ted’s sage advice, I had lined up an evening out. And at about 8 p.m. we headed to El Sauce, an outdoor music venue; the size of football field, El Sauce was popular among locals and jammed with music-and-dance lovers of all ages. As Gisele and I elbowed our way to the bar, we wondered how we would find our students, let alone corral them at 10:30 p.m. when, supposedly, we were going to be picked up. I needn’t have worried: Within an hour my kids, as I began to think of them, had congregated together; some were dancing with locals, others were chatting with each other, foot-tapping and swaying to the music. In good journalistic form, a few were taking photos and shooting video.

I went to bed that first night feeling exhausted and excited about the week ahead.

There was a bar, not far from Casa Vera, and a few hotels with internet access within a one-half mile-or-so that the students would occasionally wander off to in the evenings after what was invariable a 10-to-12 hour day of lectures and reporting. But it became clear to me and Gisele that our students had fully absorbed my admonishments about staying sober in a strange city. Equally important, though I had laid down no rules about curfews or anything else, I had made clear my expectations. My students, in turn, rose to the occasion–at all times showing respect for our local hosts and the efforts I had made in planning the trip.

In the mornings, as we boarded our buses, and, throughout the day, as we alighted at various venues—Gisele and I were invariably head counting. By the second day, the kids had started teasing that instead of counting sheep, I would be counting students in my dreams.

I had certainly begun counting on my students. We interviewed entrepreneurs and experts on Cuban economy and culture, and visited the farm and the Cuban Food Industry Research Institute; the students took notes, asked questions and videotaped. We debriefed every night, and I encouraged them to start honing the ideas that they were interested in developing; two or three students, I explained, could work on a story together—especially as some students were were writing print articles and others producing multimedia projects. I encouraged the two or three Spanish-speakers to team up with non-Spanish speakers. Again and again, the students rose to the occasion, sharing their language skills, their technology and their notes.

farm photoAt Finca Marta, a sustainable farm run by agronomist Fernando Funes-Monzote

Another valuable lesson emerged during the course of the week. While the students were writing about disparate businesses, these cuentapropistas shared many common challenges and experiences. As the students and Gisele and I asked questions, the best students began to hone their own questions. Hearing one entrepreneur talk about the difficulty of acquiring credit, prompted questions to other entrepreneurs about how they funded their businesses. Meanwhile, the weaker students who had been silent for the first few days, joined the fray, learning how to ask good questions from their classmates.

The subject of grades never came up. In planning the course, I had decided to give an exam based on the first-week’s readings and lectures. The decision was based, in part, on the need to fulfill the “rigor” requirements of some of the honors programs that were helping to fund individual students, as well as my own fear that the kids wouldn’t complete their readings without an assessment.

I needn’t have worried. When, just before our departure, I asked the students if they wanted their exam grades before we left, they all said: NO! They didn’t want grades interfering with their learning or the fun they were having. When they returned, I felt obligated, by the system, to give them each a grade on the first drafts of their stories; again, I think it was clear to both students and me that the grades were next to meaningless. At the end of the semester, most students had earned an A or A- –most certainly not the usual outcome in my classes. One of the lowest grades went to a student who had, because of work, missed the exam and not made it up; but she had tackled a particularly complicated final project, and I told her that if she got it into publishable shape, I’d bump up her grade. She did, but never asked about her grade.

There are limits to what you can extrapolate from this experience. Our group, while typical in some ways of the Baruch student profile, differed in important respects. It included a large number of honors college and scholarship students. And the need to show up for multiple meetings and complete endless paperwork in advance of both the course and the trip required a high degree of commitment on the part of the students. Then too, I had invested a year of planning—not realistic for a typical college course.

One interesting anomaly: Of 11 students, only two were men. Though I have no way of verifying this, I was told by the young men who did join us that the requirement that students make a $1,000 deposit—a sum that I told the students I could probably wave in cases of high need—dissuaded many of the young men who had initially expressed interest.

I came away from my trip persuaded that an “authentic” experience combined with a high degree of collaboration tightly tied to the aims of the course would be a great model for future courses. Whether that structure will help replicate the close-knit bonds and trust that the students developed both amongst each other and with me in Cuba, is an open question.

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One Response to Adventures in Cuba with My Journalism Students

  1. Albie says:

    Andrea Gabor.
    Lucky you and lucky students to make this journey. (And tons of hard work too!) It makes sense that the defrosting of the 50 year attempt to isolate Cuba will have many bumps in the road, posturing on both sides, but the “Track II” diplomacy of you and your students and others like it will play a powerful role. THANKS for such an open sharing. I’m going to read it again tonight to absorb your various experiences and insights. ~ Albie Davis

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