We had to get up in time to leave the hotel by 8:30 the next morning. Not packed, (we'd be coming
back that night) but fed and with everything we thought we needed for the day. Including the textbooks
we could finally give away.
Ten years ago, when our professors had visited the University of Santa Clara, they'd asked what the
university would like them to bring. The response was textbooks. So before leaving Carthage we each
grabbed a textbook and had been carrying it around in our suitcase ever since.
So we walked into a room and listened to a presentation that gave me flashbacks to junior and senior
year when I'd visit colleges. Here's how many people we have (8,000 undergraduates and 9,000
graduate students.) Here's what percentage of our faculty have Ph.D.s (35%, a number they're proud of
because ti's higher than most nearby universities.) Here's our motto (“Proud of its history, committed to
its present, and open to its future.”)
The re were three people talking about the university. The first one spoke in English, the next two
spoke in Spanish with the first person translating. The first presentation wasn't so bad, but the next two
were so hard to be interested in. Part of that might have had to do with the speakers being psychology
teachers and talking about that.
There were two things that stuck out from the combined talks. The first was how practical all of the
areas of study had been. You could get a masters in applied math. Pure math wasn't an option. There
was a huge focus on biotech (one of the aspects of the embargo is that Cuba has been forced to create
their own medicines, so biotech is one of the leading exports from Cuba.) and other sciences, in
addition to humanities mostly related to social work.
The other was how focused on community development they were. Universities in the United States
often claim to be focused on returning to the community, but there aren't universities where every
single department has service projects related to that department. It also helps that there aren't majors
like “Math, Pure” and “Great Ideas.”
After the presentations and questions were over, we presented the textbooks to the teachers. They were
even happier to receive them than we were to get rid of them.
There were about half a dozen students sitting in during the presentation. All of them were studying
English language. This was, for many of them, the first time they'd talked with Americans, or even
tourists. And it was the first time we were talking with Cubans who weren't trying to sell us something.
So it was a pretty good experience all around.
We talked with them in the classroom, took a group picture (the Cuban students seemed surprised by
how many people were taking the pictures, and how long it took. It seemed normal to me.) Then we
talked some more, walked around the university a bit, and got into the bus (with the students) to drive
to the botanical gardens. We could either listen to someone translate a description of the trees there or
talk more with Cuban students our own age. I chose the latter. Then we piled back into the bus and
dropped of f the students, though our professors asked them for a restaurant recommendation and
invited them to join us. Most of them did. It took nearly 2 hours for us to get food, and we needed to eat
it quickly when it did come. The conversation made it worth it, though.
I talked with Gretter and Angela, and then Leonard. All of them were in their second year at the
university, studying English. English is a six-year program, and most of the others are five-year, though
math is four. (There might be others that are shorter, but I only asked about math.) After the first year,
students studying English need to take a comprehensive, challenging, test. If they fail, they find
something else to study. That appears to be the only chance they get to change their major.
Gretter asked me “What are you studying? Psychology, no?” When I told her it was actually math, she
looked at me shocked and asked “what are you doing here?” And then we needed to explain that the
United States universities were much less focused than in Cuba. And most people at Carthage had two
majors, and even beyond that we take classes outside of those. Meanwhile, they're spending hours each
day in classes just for English. And they take a few other classes in introductory French and Spanish
grammar, but they're all taking the same classes.
Their English was absolutely phenomenal. That's what intensive study can do for you. When Leonard
was giving a description of a class, it sounded familiar from years of language classes. There's a
dialogue, and then grammar, and then practice where they need to talk with each other. And vocabulary.
Lots of vocabulary.
Matt started to give a description of what language classes were in the United States, but only got as far
as saying “I tested into German 202, which meant I tested out of German 101, 102, and 201.” Then
Leonard asked “What is 101? Because one of the conversations used it, but we not understand what it
Another thing they used to study language was watch T.V. shows. American television shows. I asked
at one point if they watched British TV, and the response was, and they said no. not yet. Later on they
might study different dialects, but for now it was only the United State accent.
I asked a few people the question that I don't really love being asked, but can concede it's important.
“What are you planning on doing after you finish school?” Angela talked about how one could become
either a teacher or translator. She'd like to be a translator, though most people ended up going into
Leonard mentioned that directly after college, he needed to complete at least 2 years of work. The
universities are free for Cubans, but after graduation they need to spent two years working for the
government. After that, he would love go to France, though he's not sure if he'll be able to.
There are 14 universities in Cuba, one for each province. The University of Santa Clara and the
University of Havana are considered the top two in the country, though it's not clear which one is
better, and the idea of fighting it out through baseball games seemed foreign to him. They did have
intra-school baseball games to decide which department was the best.
When applying, you apply specifically into the field of study you're taking. Leonard was competing
with 600 students from around the area for five spots. They needed to take three tests: history, math,
and one other that I forget. And once they're in, they still have that challenging end-of-year test. There
were 22 students who took it, but only 11 who passed.
It was all so fascinating, and it was wonderful to be able to talk to the students in a natural situation.
Much more interesting than learning about the taxonomic classification of different kinds of palm trees.