By EDWARD HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
CANTON, Mo. -- An eight-day educational excursion to Cuba turned out to be a "life-changing experience" for 19 students, faculty and staff from Culver-Stockton College, according to Jen Roberts, a graphic designer and photographer who works in Culver-Stockton's communications office.
"It was definitely more than I expected," she said.
Roberts was the only college staff member to go on the trip, which also involved 15 students and three faculty members. Roberts served as the "eyes and ears" of the college and wrote a series of reports on a blog published on The Quincy Herald-Whig's website.
Roberts echoed the sentiments of other group members who said the trip forever changed their perception of the communist country and broadened their view of the world.
"Being there, all of the students and myself started to understand a little bit more," Roberts said.
Ordinarily, travel to Cuba is off-limits to Americans because of a trade embargo imposed more than 50 years ago. However, the embargo was partially lifted several years ago to allow educational trips and visits with family members living in Cuba.
Once the travel door was opened, C-SC officials immediately started planning the college's first excursion to Cuba as part of a travel study program.
The adventurers left for Cuba in early December and returned to Canton on Dec. 16.
The main goal was to give students the opportunity to study the country's fine arts and governmental institutions.
"We learned everything we intended to and more," Roberts said.
She said the trip provided an intimate look not only at the nation's cultural traditions but also its geography, economic conditions and way of life.
"I didn't expect the countryside to be as beautiful as it was," Roberts said. "And the architecture was hands-down, by far, the most stunning that I've ever seen."
But what stood out most for Roberts was the opportunity to experience "the Cuban people themselves and their infectious spirit," she said.
"They love to sing and dance and enjoy life. They don't have the electronics that we have. So it was really interesting to see the way they come together, and the things that they do for fun are more focused on being with one another rather than isolating themselves as we tend to do as Americans."
Ian Hoffman, a sophomore political science major from Chicago, said the Cuba trip was "a great experience" for everyone involved.
"The country is quite different from the way we're told it is," he said. "The government is a lot less involved in people's daily lives than we think. It is a socialist country, but they've changed their economic structure a lot to fit into the new world economy."
Hoffman, who is hoping for a career as a diplomat, said his first international trip gave him a better sense of how people in different parts of the world are alike in many ways.
"Even though we have different cultures, different languages, people want the same things -- and that's to have a family, have a job, go on picnics with your kids. And that's what we saw in Cuba. They were just regular people," he said.
While visiting Havana, the Culver-Stockton group stayed at a hotel that caters to foreign tourists. That in itself was an enriching experience for the group because of the wide cross-section of people they encountered.
"It was full of Canadian tourists, German tourists, Danish tourists and lots and lots of French people," Hoffman said. "I speak French fluently, so I had a lot of opportunities to speak French in Cuba -- more than Spanish -- which was kind of funny. I wasn't expecting that."
The C-SC group spent considerable time soaking up the art scene in Cuba. The visitors met with several of the country's leading artists and toured museums, cultural centers and jazz clubs. However, some scheduled music and dance performances were unexpectedly called off one day while Cuba joined the international community in mourning the death of South African leader Nelson Mandela.
One highlight of the trip was a visit to the former home of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Cuba while writing some of his most memorable works, including "The Old Man and the Sea."
"That especially hit home to me," Roberts said. "I could just imagine Hemingway sitting there with his doors wide open and being inspired by the people and the scenery and the music and the food and everything."
C-SC music professor Tom Polett, one of the faculty members participating in the tour, said the trip provided a wealth of insights about Cuban music and other fine arts aspects of the Cuban culture.
"I couldn't be more pleased," he said. "It was everything I hoped it would be -- and a lot of things I never expected. It's a place filled with amazing talent."
Polett recalled how the group one night saw a performance of Cuba's national folkloric ballet, then later got private dance lessons while a combo performed on the rooftop of a four-story building in the old part of Havana, providing an almost surreal experience for everyone.
Polett said the trip to Cuba was valuable "on so many levels" for students. It opened their eyes to what Cuba is really like compared with some of the preconceptions going into the trip.
"They were surprised by the level of freedom they were afforded to go where they wanted when they wanted, not to have any restrictions at all," he said.
Hoffman said he is convinced international travel experiences like this are vital for students to get a well-rounded education.
"From an educational perspective, it is absolutely imperative that you go out of the country in this day and age," he said. "We're not an isolated country. We live in the world, and we have to participate. And we need to see what it's like."
For day-by-day updates, photos and videos from the C-SC trip, go to www.whig.com/cuba.
LIVE WEB CHAT
The Herald-Whig will host a live web chat with some of the trip participants from 11:45 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. Monday, Jan. 13, at www.whig.com/cuba. Do you have questions for the group? Send them in advance to email@example.com.