U.S. high schoolers discover Cuba on educational trips

 

Alexandra Pannoni, U.S.News & World Report       

 

President Barack Obama is visiting Cuba this week, making him the first sitting president to visit the country in nearly 90 years. And last week his administration announced changes to travel restrictions that will make it easier for Americans to visit the country for educational purposes.

 

Some high schoolers are already embarking on trips to the nation that's been off-limits to most Americans for decades.

 

"They are very curious," says Gretchen Calhoun, a social studies teacher at Aspen High School in Colorado who is accompanying a group of 12 students to Cuba on a trip later this week -- though the trip, like many high school students take overseas, is not sponsored by the district. Her students seem truly thrilled to be going, she says.

 

Calhoun thinks that her students feel it's almost like an opportunity to travel back in time to see a country that has essentially been sealed off from capitalism.

 

Some of the students going are truly interested in diplomacy, she says. And Calhoun thinks they are interested in the fact that there's still some controversy in lifting the embargo.

 

A travel organization handled most of the logistics, Calhoun says. The students will be participating in educational and cultural activities while in Cuba.

 

Jill Grimaldo, a Spanish teacher at Redmond High School in Washington, visited the country as a college student in 2001 for educational purposes and says it was one of the coolest -- and safest -- places she has ever visited. She led a group of high school students there last year.

 

She says the trip was more educational than other international trips she has planned for students. The trip was about interacting with the people, and learning about the history, culture and day-to-day lives of Cubans.

 

She had fewer parental concerns on this trip than any other one, she says.

 

"In general, the parents who are willing to send their kids to Cuba were a little bit more open-minded," she says. "I think if a parent was concerned about travel, in general, this would not be the trip they would have sent their kid on."

 

Some parents were concerned about things like whether the water was safe, but no one expressed concerns about political issues. And Grimaldo thinks it helped parents to know that she had traveled to Cuba previously and felt very safe. The trips also was very structured.

 

Nancy Hallock was very excited for her 13-year-old daughter Emily to get the opportunity to visit Cuba on a trip with fellow students and educators from Pierson High School in Sag Harbor, New York, last month, since it's such a unique time in history.

 

She says she would have concerns no matter where she sent her daughter outside of the U.S. without her, but she trusted the judgment of the chaperones on the trip and that they wouldn't put the students in any questionable situations.

 

There was also an informational night for parents and students with two local journalists who had recently visited Cuba. They said they felt very safe there and that was very reassuring, Hallock says.

 

The highlight of the trip for students was a visit to an intermediate school where students got to interact with their Cuban peers, says Toby Marienfeld, a Spanish teacher at Pierson High who was one of the educators who accompanied students on the trip.

 

She thinks her students expected their counterparts to be totally ignorant of things like social media and to know little about American culture. But they have ways to access social media and even exchanged that information with her students. When the groups met, the U.S. students realized the two were a lot alike.

 

And Marienfeld thinks her students were impressed with the Cuban students' outlook on the future. Many dreamed of one day visiting the U.S., she says.

 

"One of the kids said, 'You know, I was very impressed with how little they had, and how happy they were,'" she says. She thought that was a pretty good observation because they do have -- and exist -- on so very little, but culturally they are so rich, she says.

 

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