Students Encounter Cuban Health Care System During Immersion Trip

Story Highlights

  • 18 Saint Joseph’s students experienced the realities of a Cuba's health care system during an immersion trip. 
  • Students put their knowledge to the test, and found that not everything they knew about the Cuban system was accurate.
  • It was challenging for the students to get candid answers to their questions about the realities of health care in Cuba.

Monday, January 30, 2012

While most college students spent their winter break relaxing, 18 Saint Joseph’s students experienced the realities of a health care system in a communist nation during an academic immersion trip to Cuba. Thanks to the removal of travel restrictions, the class was among the first groups of students from the United States to visit the Caribbean nation through a program run by the Augsburg College (Minneapolis) Center for Global Education.

Along with Peter Clark, S.J., professor of theology and director of the Institute for Catholic Bioethics (ICB) and Jean Smolen, Ph.D., associate professor of chemistry and director of the environmental science program, the students “visited a country that most of us have only read about,” according to Smolen.

The trip was the conclusion of a semester-long course, Just Health Care in Developing Nations, offered jointly by the ICB and the Faith-Justice Institute. Fr. Clark and Ann Marie Jursca-Keffer, M.S.W., assistant director of the Faith-Justice Institute, teach it each fall. The course gives students a background in medical ethics and public health. They then experience the material they have learned firsthand during an immersion trip to a developing nation. In the past, students enrolled in the class travelled to countries such as Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Jursca-Keffer explains that the academic immersions “enliven” the course material.  “The statistics turn into people and communities that are affected by poverty and lack of access to health care,” she says.

Additionally, this year’s choice of Cuba gave the students “the opportunity to experience firsthand a socialist-communist country that has a distinct political and social system,” says Fr. Clark.

Smolen adds that this unique location gave the students the ability to experience “the propaganda associated with this type of government.”

Senior marketing major Alex Cabrera, who has inherited many stories about Cuba from his Cuban-born grandparents, was disappointed by the apparent lack of progress in the island nation. “The run-down facades of the 1950s homes and buildings were just one visual indicator of how stagnant this country has been since the 1959 revolution,” he says.

After a rigorous semester of in-depth study, students put their newly acquired knowledge to the test, and found that not everything they knew about the Cuban system was accurate.

“Considering the censorship that occurs within the Cuban media,” explains Cabrera, “when a news story circulates in the U. S., it [has already] been filtered through the crafty mind of a communist journalist.”

It was also challenging for the students to get candid answers to their questions about the realities of health care in Cuba. “The more questions we asked, the more defensive they became,” says senior international relations major Maria Selde, who took an independent study course about Cuba in the fall. “By the end of the week, we had posed the same questions to [different] speakers and received contrasting responses.”

“Many of the people we were talking to were government officials, or in some way connected with the government, so they had biases,” adds Cabrera. “I was constantly putting two different stories together and then trying to decipher reality.”

Another obstacle the students faced was not being able to visit sites on the itinerary or to meet with planned speakers because of unexplained last-minute cancellations. “It was frustrating when everything was ‘mysteriously’ closed, or something came up and a speaker couldn’t see us that day,” says Kortney Smith, a junior majoring in interdisciplinary health services.

When the students did visit clinical sites, they felt that the staff only allowed them to see part of the picture. “The staff did not want us to see certain rooms, and they would lock the doors as we walked by,” says Selde.

However discouraging, the difficulties the students encountered in Cuba made the experience more authentic. As Selde explains, “The challenging parts of the trip were some of the most revealing because it was [from these] that I learned the most about the country.”




News and Alerts Events