Conservation in Cuba
How did you live your study?
Studying biology at the University of Havana was an incredible opportunity. The biodiversity in Cuba is amazing, and the opportunity to study conservation biology in another country changed how I view practices in the United States.
My favorite memories are the University of Havana research field trips. One of my teachers, who was helping me with my research, showed me how to tie grass slipknots to catch anolis lizards. Initially, I flung more lizards than I caught, but on the second day I caught three lizards all by myself! These research trips took us everywhere. My favorite research trip was to a cave full of cockroaches, bats, and snakes!
These field trips and our classroom discussions allowed me to look at the United States differently. For example, the United States has one of the highest rates of carbon emissions in the world, with a per capita carbon footprint larger than any other country. It is one thing to learn about this in an American classroom. It’s something completely different to be the only American in the room and realize that students all over the world learn about our country through this lens.
What moment from your time abroad do you treasure the most?
Every day, little moments proved to me I was making progress in learning how to exist in a new environment and language—the first time I successfully bought wifi cards without help, the first time I was able to maintain a conversation in Spanish, and ultimately, the day I found I passed my developmental biology exam in Spanish.
I knew I would fall in love with Cuba’s biodiversity, but I was surprised to be just as fascinated by its culture and history. Geographically, Cuba is very close to us, but decades of the trade embargo have ensured that Cubans’ day-to-day lives are nothing like our own. Despite the political animosity that our countries have maintained since before we were born, my Cuban friends welcomed me into their culture and their lives.
What was different about your study abroad program? Why was this important to you?
Studying abroad in Cuba is a unique experience. I was originally most interested in learning from Cuban researchers; due to laboratory limitations, they often implemented creative strategies to tackle scientific questions. I quickly learned the hay que inventar or “the need to invent” attitude permeates every aspect of Cuban life.
There were frustrating days—days spent trying to find a hotel with a strong wifi connection or the right bus route or a store selling staples—but it was also the best kind of adventure: to take classes in a different language; to explore beaches, churches, and city squares; to try new fruits and ice cream flavors; to ride in old cars; to live and breathe along the Malecón; to gain an entirely different perspective on Fidel Castro, socialism, and a swiftly-changing country. It was important to me to live somewhere where I would be constantly learning. This was sometimes challenging and always rewarding.