By Jennifer Jones, communications specialist for the Bennion Community Service Center
Under the sweltering Cuban sun, a group of students from the Bennion Center is weeding vegetable beds at an organic farm outside of Havana. It’s a new concept for both students and the farmer. Volunteerism is an unfamiliar practice in a country where residents depend on the government to meet their needs.
A morning on the farm, combined with discussions on economics with a professor from the University of Havana, were part of the community-engaged learning experience for 13 graduate students and 13 undergraduates. They spent fall break in Cuba, learning about economics, art, politics and culture. Student Christianna Johnson observed, “The USA and Cuba have a lot of the same problems. We just each tackle them differently.”
The community-engaged learning class titled, Cuba: Complexity, Community and Change, was coordinated by the Bennion Center through the public administration and political science departments. Dean McGovern, Bennion Center director, said the class is an example of the center’s commitment to promote, encourage and support deeply engaged learning experiences.
Students were accompanied by five University of Utah faculty members. McGovern said, “The privilege of accompanying students, many of whom are traveling internationally for the first time, is humbling. To share and learn alongside interested and engaged people is the best experience an educator can have.”
Besides learning from U professors and their counterparts at the University of Havana, students also participated in seminars taught by artists, community organizers and leaders of non-governmental organizations. They visited health care facilities and the Martin Luther King Jr. Center. Students examined and discussed cooperative models used to fill gaps between government and little private enterprise.
Student Chelsea Haviland noted, “While I might not choose to live there myself right now, Cubans seem to love their neighborhoods and cities. They want improvements, but we all do, no matter what country we live in. Who am I to tell others what will make them happy? They don’t need to live like me to be happy.”
Johnson added, “Cubans seem to have an innate sense of community.”
Student Enzo Krensky-Hart noted, “Cuba has some core values that are fundamentally important.” He says the government gives citizens access to quality health care, food and education. “I think in the U.S. that we really need to identify what our values are because not everyone has access to these things.”
“This trip has shown me that there are so many different perspectives that we can learn from,” Johnson observed. “No place is perfect but every place has people that are working to improve living conditions and work for social and environmental justice. I think if we can bridge the gaps that have prevented us from talking, it can really benefit everyone. It starts with just being open to start that dialogue.”
McGovern said, “Cuba provides an opportunity to learn in an environment that is, in many ways, radically different than what we are used to. It pushes us out of what we know and forces us to view things through a new lens. That’s transformative learning.”
Krensky-Hart added, “Cuba is not just a place. It’s an idea. I’m going to keep that idea with me.”