“They completely opened their house up for us,” says Sarah Cole. “They had pictures of past students and tourists on the walls, and told so many stories about these people like they were their family. That was one of the biggest culture shocks for me, seeing the sense of community. There’s a huge culture of just dropping by. If you did that here without calling ahead or making a coffee date, you’re inconveniencing the person. In Cuba people are just like, ‘Oh, awesome, let’s have coffee!’ ”
The 4th-year International Development Studies (IDS) student was in the Caribbean country for the 13-week Cuba Semester Program last spring, and spent another four months there in the summer working on a farm. “It’s incredible to see the difference over time, especially during four months,” she says. “You come out learning way more than you thought you would.”
Going abroad for school, independently or otherwise, allows students to question and be curious of their surroundings. It takes them out of their life back home and places them into another reality where they can discover new things about themselves.
Students going to Cuba come back “with a lot more questions than they had going into it,” says Robert Huish, an assistant professor in IDS.
“You’re warned about the culture shock when you go there, but not necessarily when you go back home,” says Sarah. “You look at what you do differently. I came home for three weeks and had to buy certain things to work on the farm. I was walking around the Eaton Centre in Toronto and shocked by how much stuff there was, how easy it was to buy things, and how expensive things are. I actually needed to buy things, but I was so reluctant to. I don’t know, it just felt so consumerist.”
Sarah Cole (r) with fellow Dal student Katherine Newton (l) and Cuban friend Isis Salcines.
The IDS department runs two Cuba programs for students in any discipline: the full semester, running from January until late April, and a two-week intensive stay during the last week of April and first week of May. Two years of Spanish with a B average is required for the semester program, but there’s no such prerequisite for the two-week intensive.
The semester program begins with a four-day stay in a hotel, where students get to know each other and visit homestay families with an assistant, IDS grad Andrea Landriault. For the first two weeks she accompanies and prepares the students for their stay.
“Cuba is captivating, a fascinating mix of old and new,” says Andrea. “The more you learn, the less you understand. You’re completely immersed in something new. It’s challenging, but worth every minute. I had this really great connection from people that they wanted to be a part of my family as much I as wanted to be a part of theirs. It’s heart-warming when you’re in a new country and don’t know anyone.”
This year Professor Huish will teach alongside the University of Havana professors during the Cuba Intensive Program. Students take part in three lecture periods at Dal before taking off to Cuba where, over the course of two weeks, two-hour lectures are scheduled for each weekday. Field visits to the health care sector, tourism, and other parts of Cuban development complement the lectures.
The old countries
IDS isn’t the only department that runs program-specific exchange and study abroad experiences. Dal’s Russian Studies department offers a Saint Petersburg University exchange for two months from mid-May to mid-July.
“I stayed with a woman who was like a Babushka to me,” says Molly Fraser, a 4th-year Russian and Theatre double major. “St. Petersburg is one of the most action-packed cities—so many museums, so many things going on! My journal was completely full at the end of the exchange. Every day I was doing so many things.”
Molly Fraser in St. Isaac's Cathedral in Saint Petersburg, Russia.
She says she was terrified of the social aspect—being a foreigner in a foreign city—before arriving, but the experience allowed her to conquer her shyness. “It’s priceless the amount of social and cultural experience you get,” she says. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, people will help you, and if they don’t, you’ll gain some experience and learn from it.”
The Theatre department offers a four-to-five-week summer course in Český Krumlov, in the southern Czech Republic. The full-credit program teaches theatre and history during the Baroque period. And in Italy, the Italian department offers a summer program at the Università Carlo Bo in Urbino, running from the last week of July until the last week of August.
No matter the destination, studying abroad has a huge impact on the students who have the sense of adventure to do it. It provides them with an invaluable global perspective on their studies and fosters greater independence. And as Sarah Coles discovered in Cuba, it promotes personal growth—and can put life as a university student in perspective.
“It’s important for students to experience something different than our student reality here,” she says. “When you come back, you do look at things differently and I think that’s a valuable thing. It’s good to get out of your comfort zone. Expect discomfort and embrace it.”
The International Centre also offers over 70 exchange and study abroad opportunities. The International Centre on the Agricultural Campus likewise offers a number of study tour courses, semesters abroad and summer internships overseas.
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