Troy students give back in Cuba over holiday break

Published 10:28 am Tuesday, February 14, 2023

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By Savanah Weed

Instead of spending time with family and friends during the holiday season, a group of 15 Troy University faculty and students spent time in Cuba immersing themselves in the language and culture and finding ways to give back.

Dr. Johanna Alberich, assistant professor of Spanish in the World Languages and Cultures Department, took 13 students to Havanna from Dec. 12-22. The trip accompanied a Spanish course and counted for class credit.

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While in Cuba, the students attended daily classes at Estudio Sampere, a language institute, where they also received private lessons. Alberich said the class was divided into groups based on students’ knowledge of the language and that the lessons were interactive instead of lecture-based.

“When teaching past tense, they talked about what our students did the day before, or if they were teaching future tense, they’d talk about what the students would be doing the next day,” she said. “They’re learning grammatical structure and vocabulary, just in kind of a roundabout, conversational way. Whether the student knows Spanish when they get there or not, they come home knowing at least some.”

In addition to learning the language, a large component of the trip is a service project. This year’s plan was a donation of school supplies, but Alberich let the students decide what they wanted to bring. The group left the states with over 300 pounds and seven suitcases full of school supplies, sports equipment and other items ranging from lotion, makeup, nail polish, jewelry, maternity items, perfume and cologne to toys, candy and other snack items.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” she laughed. “They brought everything they could find. One of the suitcases didn’t make it to the destination, so technically we had six suitcases full of supplies. I even had to leave some of the items here because we couldn’t get them all to fit.”

Isabel Robledo, a senior tourism management major from Troy, Co-Chair of the service project and President of the Study Abroad Club, stressed the importance of giving back.

“Service is important because it not only allows students to contribute to something greater than themselves, but it is also a great way to give back to the destination they are visiting,” she said. “The current situation in Cuba has led to the people being in need of everything, which was the reason for the project. Seeing the excitement and gratitude they showed for the items we gave them was very rewarding.”

The supplies were donated to a high school, two elementary schools, the language institute and several individuals, including their tour guide, bus driver and the cafeteria staff. While they weren’t able to deliver all the items personally, the group was able to spend time with students at the high school.

“It was so much fun! They were dancing and asking each other about what they like to do for fun and music. They all ended up having a lot of similar interests, so it was great to see them all interacting and connecting,” Alberich said. “We weren’t able to go to the elementary schools, but I still get messages about how thankful they are and how impactful it was. I believe in giving back, and each year we’ve gotten bigger and better but this year surpassed them all.”

To get further immersed in the culture, students stayed in a residential zone with host families. They also spent time taking dance classes, going on excursions and helping local farmers pick tomatoes, eggplant, garlic and yucca, which they were able to bring to the language institute to be cooked.

“Not only did I get to further develop my Spanish language skills, but I also got to learn about and truly understand and experience Cuba and the Cuban people,” Robledo said. “Cuba is a country that takes visiting and experiencing it for yourself to discover the truth about it. It’s a beautiful country with the friendliest people. The exceptional hospitality from the people impacted me in a huge and unforgettable way.

“We live in such a diverse world and society that it is important to prioritize taking the time to learn about and understand one another.”

Alberich said what she loves most about taking students abroad is sparking passion and interest in the world around them, and making trips affordable is a major factor in students being able to go. The Chancellor’s Award for Global Competitiveness awards students $1,250 towards the cost of their trip.

The CAGC is open to all TROY students, both undergraduate, graduate and online, who have successfully completed one full semester at TROY, are registered full time, are in good academic standing, possess a minimum overall GPA of 2.5 and have completed the TroyAbroad application.

Kayla Spencer, a junior human services major from Auburn, Alabama, said it’s important for students to take advantage of study abroad opportunities because it’s an item to add to a resume and an experience they will never forget.

“I have traveled abroad before on cruises, but this was my first true experience being fully immersed in a culture,” she said. “I had the opportunity to make new friendships, learn more about the culture, and I also was able to further my Spanish language skills. The whole experience was eye-opening to see a different country and how the people there live. I still talk about my trip today and try and encourage as many people as possible to study abroad.

“If I could give any advice to students planning to study abroad, it would be to go for it! We are in college to learn in and out of the classroom, and what better setting to do it in than another country?”