Comparing Study Abroad Trips: Havana, Cuba Versus San Sebastian, Spain

Comparing Study Abroad Trips: Havana, Cuba Versus San Sebastian, Spain

My freshman year of college I made one of the best decisions of my life. That decision was to study abroad for my first time ever in San Sebastian, Spain. It was a three week summer program in which you live with a host family, take Spanish classes at a local school, and then meet as a group with our UMass Lowell faculty member to explore different topics and places in the city. This faculty member, Julian Zabalbeascoa, actually runs a different trip, as well, one that travels to Havana, Cuba, during the winter intersessions. As you can tell, I decided that I wanted to attend this trip, as well. So two years after my time in San Sebastian, I was on a flight to Havana, ready to see how this new study abroad measured up to the first. Now that I’ve had some time to look back on my experiences, I want to compare the two trips in order to shed some light on what they’re really all about.

Going in chronological order, I first studied abroad in San Sebastian the summer of 2017. I had just finished my first year of college and had this trip swirling around my mind for months previous to my departure. Everything was new territory: flying on my own, being in a Spanish speaking country, and studying abroad in general. I felt this surge of newfound independence and autonomy. Of course, the trip was beautiful, even better than it looks in the pictures. We lived in pairs with different host families around the city. Because of this, it didn’t take more than a minute to feel 100% immersed in the city. I pushed myself to get out of my comfort zone with the foods I ate and the things I did. Without a doubt, I loved the person I felt like I became during this trip; someone who was more out of their shell and more in touch with the essence of life.

For me, this trip was all about connecting with myself. I learned a lot, did a lot of cool things, and made memories I will never forget. But the personal growth I got out of it is what hits me the most.



Two years later, I finally committed to the decision that I would also study abroad in Havana, Cuba, during the Winter 2019 intercession. I was a little bit older now, and I had already experienced the magic of traveling on my own once before. Nonetheless, I was just as excited to embark on another meaningful life experience. Cuba was different for a few reasons. One that stands out in my mind is how much time we spent as a UML group. Of course there are logistical reasons behind this, but we definitely always had a few hours together every day, which was not the case in Spain. All the students also lived together, which was new for me. I actually liked this because it made it way easier to communicate since phones are out of the picture. And the final largest difference was the age of the group, and what they wanted out of the trip. When I went to Spain, almost all of us were on the younger side, and intended to simply experience the world with other young people. Those who went on the Cuba trip were all, in comparison, a slightly older crowd who wanted to learn about the real Cuba in order to break down any stereotypes that may surround it. It felt a touch more educational in regards to our world and our history, and how its impacts can be seen in Cuba today. It was not the beach vacation some people imagine San Sebastian to be. Cuba truly was a trip to gain understanding of how others live in the world around us. I love the respect I gained for Cubans through this trip, and I found myself connecting on a deeper level with my fellow students. Our conversations over dinner, whether they be about Cuba or not, made me think about life and what I want to do with mine. So rather than just finding myself, I really found genuine connection with others.

Looking back, I feel that I gained a lot from both of these trips. You may have noticed I used the phrase “life experience” earlier, and that’s because I truly believe a study abroad trip gives you life experience. It is something you can hold on to forever, and that will permanently alter you. I would highly recommend both of these trips, especially if they are out of your comfort zone because no vacation in the world could mimic what a study abroad can do for a person. If you are hesitant, be brave. If you’re a picky eater, try something new. Even if you don’t speak any Spanish (like me), go to Spain or Cuba anyway and learn. I want to thank the honors college, API, and Professor Zabalbeascoa for allowing me these experiences that were immensely important to myself and my college experience. They were life experiences I hold near my heart and always will.

Cuban Icons: Who We Know and Who We Don’t

Cuban Icons: Who We Know and Who We Don’t

When thinking about famous or iconic Cubans, who comes to mind? Fidel Castro? Che Guevara? Both of these are correct, and, of course, there is not a soul in Cuba that doesn’t know who these men are. But on a daily basis I saw much more tribute to two completely

Hemingway street art

different figures: Ernest Hemingway and José Martí. Both of these men are widely adored by the Cuban people and for good reason. They have deep-rooted history in Cuba, and left a long-lasting legacy behind them. Yet, as Americans, we only ever heard of Hemingway. How was it that throughout our lives and lengthy backgrounds of education, not a single person in our group of twelve had as much as heard Jose Marti’s name? The answer is unclear, but the fact still remains: the United States needs a little brushing up on José Martí. Well, actually, the United States needs a little brushing up on all of Latin America. For today, though, we can start with Cuba.

Our group with a Hemingway bust

Ernest Hemingway is the better known of the two icons I saw around Havana. He is a renowned author, born in the U.S, but famous in Cuba because of the time he spent living there. His favorite bars have become local hot spots, and his house was turned into a museum. There are plenty of statues in his honor, and street art created in his image. The locals loved him, and he is especially popular in the young baseball community because he helped to create the first ever youth baseball league in Cuba. Even many of his writings take place in Cuba; in fact, the novel “The Old Man and the Sea” is based on a real-life Cuban fisherman. His legacy shows absolutely no sign of disappearing from the every day life of a Cuban citizen.

Marti statue

Even more engrained in their culture is José Martí. Martí is quite literally part of almost every home in Cuba. While walking down any residential street you will see a bust of Martí, with his distinctive mustache, in front of any given house. But who is he? The answer is many things: a poet, a writer, a professor, a politician, a militiaman, a revolutionary leader, and a patriot for independence. Starting at merely fifteen years old, Martí dedicated his life to revolutionizing Cuba. He fought for his ideals, with an emphasis on independence and racial equality. Martí spent a lot of his life living in various countries, most of which were in Latin America, but he also lived in the U.S., too. There, he worked as a writer and created his famous essay titled “Our America.” This is what shocks me most about Martí: he lived in the U.S., and I still had never heard of him. His contributions to the indolence movement in Cuba, combined with his inspirational writings, have made him a national hero. He can be seen in statues or busts, artwork, and a whole school dedicated to his teachings.

Together, these figures make up the two most prevalent icons in Cuban culture that I was able to witness. I was glad to become educated on the life and writings of José Martí, as well as learn more about Hemingway, an author I had previously read. Cuba is one of our closest neighbors, yet they are so foreign to us. I hope one day there is more education on Latin America in the U.S school systems, and that more people are able to identify more than just Fidel or Che when thinking of famous Cubans.

A Marti monument


Cuba: Blast from the Past

Cuba: Blast from the Past

Shocked about how much nicer the hotel bathroom was than the typical Cuban bathroom. We could flush toilet paper!

In more ways than one, living in Cuba can feel like you are living in the past. Due to the fact that they were effectively cut off from the rest of the modern world, Cuba lacks a lot of modern technology and advancements. However, this is not true throughout the entire island. The life of the average Cuban includes little to no modern technology, including internet, but there are a few select hotels that, upon entering, make you feel like you have entered an entirely different world. That stark difference is unlike anything that exists in America. Just imagine taking a five star hotel from New York City and dropping it into a lower income area. No one that actually lived in that location could stay there because of how far out of their budget it would be. To make things even more extreme, imagine that the people living around that hotel can’t even flush their toilet paper due to sewage problems, and that they have no internet, Wifi, and limited resources such as towels and food. But, of course, any five star hotel allots about four towels per guest, has perfectly good plumbing, free Wifi, and a large selection of food to choose from. Doesn’t it just seem inhumane that the guests of this hotel were living lavish while those directly around them existed in such different conditions? That would cause a social class outrage in the United States. But in Havana, this scenario is very real. 

A typical Cuban street

Walking around Cuba, you could tell from much of the infrastructure that it was dated. The modern world has kept advancing and definitely left Cuba behind. As mentioned, Cuba lacks many resources including consistent food sources and all the basics that we take for granted, such as shampoo or pillows. They have no internet or Wifi unless you buy a Wifi card. A card gives you 60 minutes of Wifi that you can connect to if you are near a hotspot, which exist sparingly around the island. They also have problems with their plumbing, which is why you must throw your used toilet paper in the trash rather than flush it down the toilet. This is a small thing that makes a huge difference as opposed to the comforts of the modern world. If you’re craving a snack, you can’t go to a convenience store to grab one because they don’t really exist. Pharmacies are difficult to access and may leave you waiting in line for hours. And, of course, the cars include many old models that Cuba is famous for.

What was most jarring for me as a foreigner was the quality of the water. Tourists and visitors cannot drink the water or ingest food washed with non-purified water without getting sick. Even some Cubans won’t drink the water, relying on water bottles or boiling their water to sanitize it before use. We all had to be extremely careful not to swallow any water while showering, and had to use bottled water or purified water to brush our teeth. And believe me, it’s so easy to forget you can’t brush your teeth with sink water because of how much of a habit it is. This is less of an issue that Cuba itself holds since many places around the world have water undrinkable for foreigners due to its bacterial makeup, but it was still an odd concept to wrap my head around.

I definitely felt as if I was living in the past while I was in Cuba. The infrastructure that made it seem so dated had been due to the embargo and it’s crippling effects on Cuba as a whole. However, everywhere we went, we saw progress being made to improve the crumbling infrastructure. I sincerely hope they continue to slowly but surely revamp the country so that its infrastructure mirrors the progress the people have made in these recent years.

U.S-Cuban Relations

U.S-Cuban Relations

If you don’t know much more than the basics concerning the relationship between Cuba and the United States then you may be under the impression that they must not like us very much. Realistically, if someone embargoed my country from the rest of the world and, therefore, left me with extremely limited resources, I’d be pretty upset, too. And then there was the various coup attempts and the incident where the U.S tried hiding the fact that we were spying on Cuba via aircraft, though it was obvious it had been happening. Clearly there is a laundry list of reasons why Cubans may not love America. In addition to this, it doesn’t seem like the leaders of these two countries see eye to eye. We have extremely different systems of government, public policies, and systems of belief. And I’m not too sure that the saying “opposites attract” really applies to governments. However, the way Cubans feel about Americans proved to be much different than to be expected. 

Through my experiences, I found that Cubans are more than welcoming to all Americans. Many of them have family members or close friends that live in America, so they feel that creates a bridge of commonality between our two countries. They also love things like American baseball, so if you’re willing to engage in a conversation about it then you might find you have a line of people waiting to discuss it with you. Most importantly, they do not blame the American people for the words or actions of government leaders. Cubans are very good at recognizing the fact that not everyone in America believes the things their President says. Even if they did, a Cuban would love to spark a healthy debate over politics. And that’s all they want! They aren’t in the business to berate anyone for their beliefs or try to persuade them for or against anything. They just love to speak and discuss ad share ideas.

Pulled into a musical performance by locals

It’s a small island, so getting to talk to foreigners is fun for them. Not only to discuss the country of the foreigner, which in our case was the United States, but because they are so proud of their culture and want to share it. I wrote in a separate blog about how much pride they have for their country because of how obvious it was to me. I think it seemed so apparent because of how enthusiastic they all were to share and explain their typical world to us. They loved to include us in their cuisine, music, history, and dance. There was not a moment where I didn’t feel totally welcome in Cuba. In fact, there were many instances in which various Cubans highly encouraged all of us to come back and convince as many people as we could to come as well. This is because all Cubans want is to be understood as a people, so the more Americans who come to see the real Cuba, the better.

The consensus was that Cuban people love Americans! They love American culture and sports, too. All they want is to share their culture with us, as well, with no intent to push their ideals on us. They just want better representation on the world stage than they have right now. And the change starts with the crossing of borders, so if you are considering finding a way to visit Cuba, I would highly encourage you to go. You won’t travel to another place where you are more welcomed with open arms as intensely as you are in Cuba.

Being taught how to make Cuban beats


Night Life In Cuba

Night Life in Cuba

Having studied abroad twice now, I get asked a lot of questions regarding all kinds of things about both my San Sebastián, Spain, trip and my Cuba trip. One topic that I find particularly interesting to discuss is night life. I feel as if the night life of a place can come to define a people and their culture. This is immensely true in Cuba. A huge part of their culture revolves around music and dance. In fact, many dances originated in Cuba. Ever heard of the tango, the conga, or the cha-cha-cha? Aside from these, the two most popular styles of dance that I witnessed during Cuban night life were salsa and ballet.

Gran Teatro de La Habana

The Cuban ballet is an extremely popular attraction, putting on shows typically on Friday and Saturday nights. I had the pleasure to actually attend one of the shows, and it was truly incredible; the auditorium was opulent, and the dancers were even more impressive. I was blown away by the beauty and grace of it all. It was definitely a worthwhile way to spend an evening.

The other dance I had a lot of exposure to was the salsa. Dancing the salsa did not originate in Cuba, but I believe that Cubans have absolutely perfected it. The salsa club we went to was definitely not what I expected; it was a stunning outdoor patio on the water, with a stage, dance floor, and trees throughout the seating area. The warm island air and the proximal water made the place feel care-free, and a lot less scary than what I expected a “club” to be like. Though this club was vastly different than the pristine ballet we attended, the dancing was just as impressive in its own way. I swear some of the dancers must have been professionals because they were blowing me away. Overall, it was probably my favorite night out of the whole trip. The entire crowd was kind and encouraging. Plus, I learned a lot of new moves from the locals that I hadn’t learned in our salsa class.

The Malecón

Aside from dancing, Cubans love their music and their cuisine. It was not uncommon to see Cuban people sitting along the water on what’s known as the Malecón, listening to music on a stereo. Or, even, making music themselves. And of course, bars and restaurants were hugely popular places to spend the night. There were plenty of cool spots to grab a seat at and enjoy the atmosphere. I found a lot of restaurants and bars were semi-outdoors, so it was very care-free and fun. Cuba is a very collectivist culture, so being around others in the community and spending time together seemed to be important to the people. This is what makes the night life so vibrant in this community. Overall, I found that I greatly enjoyed the night life in Cuba, and that the locals love to include tourists in their liveliness.

Pride In Cuba

Pride in Cuba

Patriotism can be defined as the love of one’s country. This is not to be confused with nationalism, which includes exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests. As an American, of course I feel affection for my country, as most people typically do. But I can also recognize how easy it is to slip into the belief that our country is the best country. Even, perhaps, that other countries would benefit by following similar schematics we follow in politics, economics, etc. This is where that patriotism turns more nationalism. That being said, I have found through my travels that many citizens in Cuba are immensely patriotic, without crossing that nationalistic line. Cuban people are full of a deep-rooted pride and love for their place of origin. They love to boast about their delectable cuisine, fascinating history, and impressive dance skills. Like us, they have their country’s flag flying high all around the island. However, they are also very willing to admit to the fact that their country is not perfect; in fact, they have many issues that face them at all times. There are shortages of all sorts of food items and supplies such as household items and clothing. Their sewage system cannot handle toilet paper, so instead it goes in the trashcan by the toilet. Internet is not widely accessible, so one must purchase a wifi card and go to a hotspot to get their limited time on-line. And, of course, Cubans struggle to make decent wages since there is still equal pay among all vocations except for many of those in the tourism sector.

Despite all of this, Cubans manage to remain hugely prideful of their country. What stuck with me the most about my trip to Cuba was something our translator Ana said, which was something along the lines of this: ‘Cuba might have it’s problems, and it might be a piece of trash, but it’s OUR trash. I am so proud to live here and be Cuban.’ Anyone could tell that this came from the heart because Ana had tears in her eyes by the end of her sentiment. Honestly, I could have teared up as well. I don’t know anyone here in the U.S that knows as much about their country as Ana does about hers. She knows every fact, every piece of history, every custom and piece of culture. It even seems like she knows every person in Cuba. And for every bit of information she knew, she relayed it while beaming with pride and love. This was consistent throughout the people on this island; no matter who you talked to, they were more than happy and willing to tell you about their country.

George Orwell once said that “patriotism is defensive: it is a devotion to a particular place and a way of life one thinks best, but has no wish to impose on others.” This quote perfectly aligns with the way Cubans view their country. They love it and wouldn’t want it any other way, but have no obligation to make other countries follow their way of life. They are content in themselves and it is absolutely refreshing to hear a group of people acknowledge their flaws but still love who they are.

Education In Cuba

Education in Cuba

Cuba is known for having very different government policies than we do in the States. Some of their policies include universal health care and free education. To many Americans, this may seem impossible because of how much money it would cost the government and people in order to have free health care and free education. But the Cubans absolutely love it. They love the fact that anyone can go to school, and that the health clinic is free of charge if they need care. Since they are a collectivist society, it just makes sense that they would want a policy that provides for everyone. But of course free schooling does not mean that everyone can go to university on a whim. There are some very interesting measures set in place that allow a student to study a specific field in college. As a college student myself, I felt it would be interesting to share Cuba’s vastly different system of schooling. So I took some notes, and this is what I found:

The University of Havana, Cuba

1. Education, including university, ACTUALLY is free. For Cubans.
This means that if you were considering applying to university in Cuba to get a free degree, then you’re fresh out of luck. As a foreigner, you definitely still have to pay to attend college in Cuba. However, the tuition is a lot cheaper than it is at many schools in the United States, which could be a plus. But the real battle is getting the major you want, which brings me to my next point…

2. You have to win a spot in the major you want.
In the U.S, you apply to colleges with a stated major. In Cuba, you apply to colleges with your top 5 majors ranked. Since they only allow a certain amount of people to work in a certain field, availability of that major depends on the scores of others, and the need for that profession. If Cuba has enough doctors at the moment, you might have to settle for being a teacher. Or if there is great need for doctors, but you were outranked by too many people, all the spots may be full and you might have to settle for your second pick. It is a very competitive process, so working hard in school and excelling on your entrance exam are key factors in getting the occupation you desire. However, there is a major drawback of higher education in Cuba if you are not planning on using it to get a job elsewhere. This is due to point number three.

3. All occupations make the same salary.
This is where Cubans take a hit. Regardless of their job, they all make the same amount at the end of the month. Except for those who work in tourism, since they can make a lot of money in tips. Actually, the highest paying occupation in Cuba is a taxi driver. Crazy, right? For this reason, many Cubans who get higher education in a demanding field, such as the medical field, end up working in other countries. But regardless, the Cuban school system is renowned for producing amazingly skilled workers, so they must be doing something right.

Our group participating in a lecture

Food In Cuba

Food In Cuba

Before leaving for Cuba I constantly wondered what I was going to be eating. What foods grow there and how do they cook it? Would I enjoy it or would I have to rely on self-brought snacks night after night? Having studied abroad before, I figured my experience may be synonymous with that of the past: the same traditional breakfast every day and a hit-or-miss dinner I would have to eat either way. So I kept my expectations low and set off for Havana, where two weeks of culinary immersion awaited me.

However, upon arrival to Cuba, I soon realized that dining would be a whole different experience than my previous study abroad trip. All twelve of us students got to live in the same house, so meals were always enjoyed as one big group. It was definitely a highlight of my time spent in Cuba since we had so many great conversations and debates over dinner. Dinner was also served family-style, so you could take what you wanted and none of what you didn’t. I loved this aspect because I always want to eat everything on my plate as not to waste any food, so I could take what was manageable for me.

Most importantly though, the food was 
amazing. It truly blew me away. True to her reputation, our host mom Natalia really was the best cook on the island, and I often found myself preferring her meals to ones I bought on my own. Every meal consisted of multiple dishes, mostly including staples like rice, beans, chicken
or pork, ropa vieja (a group favorite),
green beans, beets, tostones, salads, and plenty of delicious soups. Breakfasts included items such as eggs, bread, guava, watermelon, papaya, pineapple, muffins, crepes, a fresh toast of sorts, and coffee. Natalia always went above and beyond, but even then she would ask if anyone wanted more of any of her dishes. She also frequently made desserts such as jello, pudding, flan, or bought us ice cream from the internationally renown Coppelia. Being back in the States I can say that I truly do miss the food in Cuba. I genuinely looked forward to every meal and found out how much I loved such seemingly simple things like bean soup with rice.

There are also plenty of times that we ate at restaurants while on this trip. Every meal I had was so delicious and well cooked. Some foods we ate include the following (as shown in the photos below):

Now, for all of my picky eaters who may not be sold yet, let me reassure you that you will find plenty of food you love or grow to love on this trip. I am definitely on the picky side, and before going to Cuba I think I had eaten beans once in my life. These days, I legitimately crave them. So don’t be scared to try new things! Because if anyone can make a tasty bean and rice dish, it’s the Cuban people, and especially our host mom Natalia.

Looking back, I think much of my authentic experience was based around the food I ate. Cuisine is such a cornerstone of any culture, and I felt that the Cuban people really embraced us through their dishes. Not only were we offered tasty, well-known dishes, we were also offered an invitation to join the Cuban people around us in their dining experience. At restaurants we were often swept off our feet by the band that was playing, and ended up with an instrument in hand or dancing to the beat. Cuban restaurants have a way of making you feel so welcome and included, and in that way, they are a perfect mirror of Cuba itself.



Follow this winter 2019’s Office of Study Abroad & International Experiences Global Correspondent, Corrina Quaglietta, on her international experiential studies in Havana, Cuba!

Corrina is a UMass Lowell Nursing major with a Public Health minor studying this winter on a UMass Lowell Honors College Faculty-led Program, Cuban Cultural Immersion, in Havana, Cuba.

This traveling seminar will use the Cuban experience as a backdrop for experiential learning, along with discussions with professionals in that particular field of study, and writing assignments designed to allow students to reflect upon their experience studying and living in Cuba. Students will gain a multi-disciplinary overview of Cuban contemporary culture and further understanding from a cultural, socio-political and historical context.

Please feel free to read blogs from previous trips to Cuba listed below or from other destinations across the globe UMass Lowell students travel to.

Corrina stands atop San Sebastian's Mount Urgull with La Concha behind her.

Corrina stands atop San Sebastian’s Mount Urgull with La Concha behind her.

Corrina holds her medal after having completed a half marathon in Boston.

Corrina holds her medal after having completed a half marathon in Boston.

Corrina stands with friends Abby and Aislinn. All three students participated in the Honors College's Cuba study abroad program.

Corrina stands with friends Abby and Aislinn. All three students participated in the Honors College’s Cuba study abroad program.