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After 15 Years, Cuba Study Abroad Program is as Vital as Ever

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | September 18, 2014 | No Comment |

hen the College of Charleston launched its study abroad program in Havana, Cuba in summer 2000, travel and relations between the U.S. and Cuba were already difficult. Maintaining the program, which sends about 12 students to Havana each spring, has been challenging and often unpredictable, but it has always been rewarding.

cuba study abroad

Students studying abroad in Havana. Photo by Britton Holmes.

“My time in Cuba impacted me in more ways than I can count,” said Britton Holmes, a junior international studies and political science double major who studied abroad in Havana during the spring 2014 semester. “The culture is so rich, whether it’s the music, the art, the dance, etc. The people love being Cuban. They’re proud of their culture and they want to share it with everyone.”

 RELATED:Learn more about the College’s study abroad program in Cuba

The program that Holmes speaks of, though, is vastly different than the program the first 100 students to study in Havana experienced. In 2000, when International Studies Department Chair Douglas Friedman and Professor Emeritus of Hispanic Studies Jose Escobar launched the program with 20 students, participants spent four weeks and lived in what was essentially a hotel. When the embargo in Cuba was tightened in 2004, it required that those visiting with an education license must spend a minimum of 10 weeks. That was when the program went from a summer study-abroad experience to a full semester.

Photo taken in Cuba by Douglas Friedman

Photo taken in Cuba by Douglas Friedman

These restrictions caused many universities to end their own programs in Cuba, but the College’s commitment to sharing the educational and cultural opportunities in Cuba kept the program alive. “In 2004 there were more than 100 universities with programs in Cuba,” Friedman said. “In 2005 there were three.”

RELATED: Check out the department of international studies

2007 marked the first spring semester in Havana – after attempting a hurricane-filled fall semester in 2005 – and the program has remained in the spring since. Students now live in apartments on the outskirts of Havana, allowing them easy access to the city without the round-the-clock distractions of Havana in such close proximity. It also makes students clean up and cook for themselves, providing them a more immersive experience.

“We’ve progressively tried to make the experience more genuine,” Friedman said. “Now we’re able to rent apartments for short-term use, and students have full kitchens – they’re actually living there. They have to deal with the same food shortages that Cubans deal with, they have to learn the different currencies, and they have to learn to navigate Havana. It’s a much more immersive experience.”

Holmes, who lived in the apartments, is a testament to this. “There is not a better place I could think of to get a full experience of pure Latin American culture,” she said. “I feel like a gained a Cuban family as well as a College of Charleston family.”

Holmes’ account of her time in Havana reflects the many unique opportunities provided through the program – not only is the Cuba program very small, allowing for students to form a tight-knit community, but also living in an embargoed country for 11 weeks is something that few Americans can experience.

cuba study abroad

Photo taken in Cuba by Britton Holmes

This is unlike any of the other programs we have,” Associate Provost for International Education Andrew Sobiesuo said. “In terms of the experience, the facilities and the adjustment that students have to make. They really learn to appreciate the advantages they have as Americans when they see what Cubans go through on a daily basis. It makes their experience much richer.”

Becoming immersed in the Cuban lifestyle can be jarring for some students. Holmes described ideal participants as “adventurous people who like to experience new cultures.” She went on to say that people interested in political science and/or Latin American history, culture and society as well as those interested in vintage cars, architecture, dancing and nightlife would also enjoy the program.

The next round of students considering studying abroad in Havana have a few months to apply – the deadline is December 1, 2014 – and in the meantime Friedman and Sobiesuo are working to get the program director in Cuba, Humberto Miranda, to Charleston in November for a 15th anniversary celebration and to teach his usual express II courses, Social Movements in Comparative Perspective and Cuban Politics and Society.

During his annual visits to Charleston, Miranda helps recruit students for the program both by providing information on the fascinating classes taught by his fellow University of Havana and Instituto de Filosofia faculty members and telling students about the unique and storied culture that awaits them in Cuba.

For Holmes, the description of daily life and friendly locals in Cuba was the selling point. “Their culture is super inclusive… I feel really lucky to have been able to experience it.”

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German Town: The Lost Story of Seaford Town, Jamaica

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | September 17, 2014 | No Comment |


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Family Histories Film Series

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | September 5, 2014 | No Comment |

The Program in the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World (CLAW) at the College of Charleston was established to promote scholarship on the Lowcountry, the Atlantic World, and the connections between the two. The CLAW program’s mission is to strengthen the College’s instructional program and to promote the public understanding of the region and its place in a broader international context by fostering research that illuminates the constant contact and cultural exchange among the various Atlantic cultures, societies, and ethnicities.


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International Studies Welcome Back Party: Tuesday, Sept. 9

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | September 5, 2014 | No Comment |

INTLMajorsMeetingInvitationsSaveTheDate (updated)_Page_2

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West African Drum & Dance Club starting at CofC

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | September 2, 2014 | No Comment |


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Gerardo Piña-Rosales lecture 10 9 14 Hispanic Studies

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Levi Vonk ’13 was dismayed and saddened by the living conditions of migrant farmworkers he encountered during a summer internship in North Carolina in 2010.

Levi Vonk '13

Levi Vonk ’13

So profound was the experience that it continues to influence and inspire his education and research, including his plans to conduct independent research in Mexico next year through a grant from the Fulbright U.S. Student Program.

Vonk, a former student in the Honors College, earned a degree in international studies from the College of Charleston in 2013 before moving on to graduate school at the University of Sussex in England on a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship. He will graduate in September 2014 with a master’s degree in the anthropology of development and social transformation.

Vonk’s Fulbright research in 2015 will take him to León, Mexico, where he will live and work with migrant communities to analyze how international policies, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), are having a tangible impact at the local level.

“More migrants than ever are migrating back to Mexico, but because it’s so new, there are few people studying why these people are returning and what their plans are for the future,” says Vonk.

Moved to Action

Migrant-workers-embedVonk vividly recalls his first encounter with the social and economic issues faced by migrant farmworkers. He had just completed his freshman year in the Honors College and had signed on to a summer internship with the Durham, N.C.-based nonprofit group Student Action with Farmworkers, which works to improve the lives of migrant farmworkers in the Southeastern United States.

“It was the first time I had ever encountered poverty, and to see it in my own backyard was not only shocking but enraging,” Vonk recalls of the months he spent teaching English to the workers and giving reading lessons to their children.

Seeing farmworkers laboring under dangerous and unhealthy conditions for meager wages awakened something in Vonk. “The relationships I built that summer, and the injustice that I saw people I cared about struggle against on a daily basis, is something I have never been able to shake,” he says.

RELATED: Watch Levi Vonk discuss his experience working with migrant workers in North Carolina as part of his talk at the 2013 in!Genius event.

Inspired by what he witnessed in North Carolina, Vonk returned to Charleston and established an organization called Hispanic Outreach and Literacy Advancement (HOLA), which sent students from the College into local migrant communities to teach English to Hispanic families.

At the College, Vonk further expanded on his academic concentration in Latin American and Caribbean Studies by taking study abroad trips to Mexico and Cuba. In recognition of his academic success and leadership at the College, he received the Bishop Robert Smith Award, the highest and most selective undergraduate honor awarded at the College.

Levi Vonk speaks at the College's 2013 In!Genius event.

Levi Vonk speaks at the College’s 2013 In!Genius event.

Vonk credits his education at the College for preparing him for a seamless transition to graduate school and for providing the opportunities that opened his eyes to the plight of immigrants.

“Levi was the model Honors College student in the sense that he took advantage of every type opportunity that we promote and support,” says Trisha Folds-Bennett, dean of the Honors College. “He studied abroad multiple times, he pursued summer internships, he worked proactively in the community, and stepped up to lead when called upon.”

Folds-Bennett says that Vonk is a great example of why scholarship and programmatic support for highly talented students is so important. “It was my pleasure to support Levi while he was here, and his success as an alumnus is a source of pride for all of us in the Honors College and across campus.”

Like many students, Vonk benefited from the guidance and resources provided by the College’s Office of Nationally Competitive Awards (NCA), which helps students identify and apply for scholarships and fellowships for undergraduate and graduate study, independent research projects and a variety of study abroad opportunities.

Vonk-CubaAnton Vander Zee, assistant professor of English and director of the Office of Nationally Competitive Awards, works closely with students to guide them through complex application processes – matching prospective applicants with specific awards and offering feedback on personal statements, staging mock interviews and organizing internal selection committees.

“NCA is committed to raising CofC’s national and international profile as our students pursue prestigious opportunities at home and abroad,” Vander Zee says. “And student success in this arena would not be possible without the many faculty and staff at the College who put an enormous amount of effort into supporting these students by serving on the internal selection committees, helping to review applications, and writing strong letters of support. It really does take a campus.”

RELATED: Contact NCA for information on the National Science Foundation Graduate Fellowship, Fulbright Grants, Critical Language Scholarships, NOAA Hollings Scholarships and more.

Vonk is looking forward to beginning his research in Mexico next year and hopes to eventually report his findings in academic journals and use them to continue his research in a Ph.D. program. He’s also considering the possibility of writing about his experiences in magazines, newspapers, or even a book.

“I want to get these migrants’ stories out to a larger audience,” he says. “The more I have worked with migrant populations – especially migrants in the U.S. – the more passionate I become.  On every level – whether it be social or theoretical or activist – the issues surrounding migrants working and living in the US are some of the most interesting, enriching, and pressing matters in our country today.”

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Celebrating 15 years of Study Abroad in Cuba: this November!

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | August 13, 2014 | No Comment |

Save the Date(s)!  During the week of November 10 there will be several events taking place on campus to commemorate the 15th anniversary of College of Charleston’s connection with Cuba.



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Several International Studies alums and current students have recently joined the staff of the Office of Sustainability here at the College of Charleston.  We applaud them for their ability to think globally, while acting locally!

(content borrowed from the Office of Sustainability website)

SYLVIE BAELE, Volunteer Intern
Sylvie Baele

Sylvie is a native of Charleston and grew up on Johns Island, a place she is glad to call home. Her love of creative agriculture and fresh, organic produce stems from her upbringing and experiences there, and College has only intensified her passions. Sylvie is appreciative of the resources offered by attending the College, and enjoys working on independent and group projects pertaining to issues of social and environmental justice both on and off campus. Some of her interests within the realm of sustainability include: food security, urban agriculture, aquaponics, bicycles, event-planning, and empowering others through engagement in expressive collective actions. Sylvie currently works at the Trek Bike Store in Mt. Pleasant. After completing her undergraduate studies in International Studies (European concentration) and Environmental Studies in December 2014, she intends to enter the MES program at the College of Charleston.

DAN CARNEY, Volunteer Intern

DanCarneyDan Carney is currently a senior at the College double majoring in Political Science and International Studies. Originally from Winthrop, Massachusetts Dan graduated in 2010 from Portsmouth Abbey School in Portsmouth, RI. Dan recently returned from Havana, Cuba where he spent time studying Political Science courses and gaining a deeper cultural understanding of the nation. Dan is excited to return to the States and work with the Office of Sustainability this summer. 


BRITTON HOLMES, Volunteer Intern

Britton Holmes

Britton Holmes is a rising junior at the College of Charleston pursuing a double major in International Studies and Spanish. Originally from Ponte Vedra Beach, FL, Britton spent her last semester studying abroad in Havana, Cuba and recently returned from a six-week road trip across the US in a VW Eurovan, hitting most of our national parks. She looks forward to using her time as a Social Media Intern with the Office of Sustainability this summer as a learning experience. Britton enjoys using all five of the major senses, particularly sight, taste, and sound, and is passionate about good people, good food, good music, good views, traveling, sunsets, flowers, and the ocean.

OLIVIA COHEN, Media Coordinator

OliviaCohenOlivia Cohen is a rising junior from Columbus, GA. For the past year, she has worked with the Office as a communications intern, assisting with social media and building the Office’s online presence. In addition, she is an editor for Synergies, a regional sustainability publication sponsored by the Office of Sustainability. A double major in  Political Science and International Studies, Olivia hopes to pursue a career in international development and sometimes hopes to open a bakery.


COLLEEN SULLIVAN, Assistant Internship Coordinator

Colleen Sullivan

Colleen graduated from the College of Charleston with a degree in International Studies with a concentration in Latin American and Caribbean Studies, as well as a minor in Environmental Studies. Originally from Mendham, New Jersey, Colleen has worked both with the Office of Sustainability and the Center of Civic Engagement. Colleen is currently working with the office as the Assistant Intern Coordinator. Colleen is passionate about connecting higher education and sustainability through student leadership. In her spare time she enjoys all activities outdoors, hummus, traveling, and surrounding herself with good people.


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Senior Wins Prestigious Faith-Based Internship

Posted by: Lauren Saulino | August 1, 2014 | No Comment |

From: http://today.cofc.edu/2014/04/30/senior-wins-prestigious-faith-based-internship/

Graduating senior Leland Gross, who majored in international studies with minors in German and religious studies, has won a prestigious internship.

The Men’s Post-Graduate Internship is a faith-based internship with the National Student Leadership Forum.

Gross, who was raised in Roswell, Ga., will depart for the nine-month internship in August 2014 and will be based out of the Washington D.C. area.

As part of the internship opportunity, Gross attended the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. in February 2014.

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