After two years of planning by Marketta Laurila, Spanish professor, and Melissa Geist, associate professor in the Whitson-Hester School of Nursing and interim dean of the College of Interdisciplinary Studies, nine TTU students went to Cuba.
“We wanted this collaboration between the Spanish language students and the nursing students because there is a growing Hispanic population in Middle Tennessee and most of the hospitals where our students will be working are seeing that,” Geist said. “We wanted them to explore the culture and the people.”
The Spanish students paired with nursing students as translators as the group explored historic Havana and visited senior health centers. The upper-division Spanish students, who were all Hispanic by coincidence, were challenged by medical terminology and intrigued by the differences between their native cultures and what they saw in Cuba.
“They were placed in a role where they were translating for others, which is a vital part of their education,” Laurila said.
The nursing students also were surprised by the cultural differences. They wore their scrubs and stethoscopes to one of the health centers to discover that Cuban nurses wear street clothes.
“The Cubans mentioned that type of uniform worries most Cubans and makes them think of disease,” said senior nursing student Sarah Flanigan, of Tullahoma. “The senior citizen center focused on group discussions, spending time with other people and activities that got them out of the house instead of prescribing medicine, giving diagnoses, or recommending surgery.”
“I think that America could greatly improve our healthcare system by focusing more on people’s happiness as well,” she said.
The group visited the estate and favorite hangouts of Ernest Hemingway, saw a concert by the remaining members of the Buena Vista Social Club, went dancing and visited an organic farm. Everywhere they went, they were without the communications technology Americans have come to rely on.
“Our cell phones didn’t work, and there are very few places you can get the internet,” Geist said. “They are so used to Googling everything that when something would come up, they would say, ‘Google it.’ Of course they couldn’t, and it became something they would say all the time and just crack up.”
Laurila and Geist first went to Cuba two years ago, on a trip for faculty and study abroad coordinators to explore overseas study options. This year’s trip was almost cancelled two weeks before they were due to leave because intricacies of working with agencies licensed by the U.S. government to help Americans travel to Cuba, which is still under embargo.
Now that they have organized a trip on their own, they hope to take students to the island nation every few years and make it a signature program at TTU. The pair had help reducing the students’ trip costs from the university’s Academic Affairs and Advancement offices.
“We felt like it was important for students to see completely different ways of life and compare it to their own,” Laurila said. “It’s an interesting moment in Cuban history and it’s interesting to be a part of that, even for a brief moment.
“It broadens their perspective that there are other kinds of governments, other kinds of cultures.”