Undergraduates immerse themselves in Cuban culture

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USF College of Public Health undergraduate students, in collaboration with England’s University of Exeter medical students, chose to spend their spring break in Havana, Cuba, March 12-19.

Deidre Orriola, an undergraduate COPH instructor, led the students as they took part in homestays with local Cuban families and explored several public health and medical organizations.

This was the first year the COPH offered a study abroad program in Cuba.

USF and Exeter students worked together to triangulate their experiences, allowing them to become familiar with the Cuban medical system, according to Orriola.

They also learned about British and American medical and public health infrastructure through peer interaction.

University of South Florida and University of Exeter undergraduate students and Jesse Casanova, COPH international programs coordinator, at CENESEX, a Sexual Health Agency. (Photo courtesy of Deidre Orriola)

“Cuba has done so much with so little. Students get a good picture of the benefits and the challenges of the public health medical systems in Cuba,” Orriola said. “The Cuban government has established a framework from preventative care, to secondary and tertiary level care. The students can benefit from seeing a system and a culture different from ours, within an economy and political system different from ours, and be able to compare how the health system works in comparison to the United States.”

University of South Florida undergraduate students visit the Latin American School of Medicine. (Photo courtesy of Deidre Orriola)

Throughout the trip students learned about environmental health, maternal health, sexual education and other public health topics, visiting with several institutions across Cuba.

One of the institutions the students visited was the Alamar Organic Farm, which practices a cooperative economic model, allowing workers to become owners or shareholders after a certain length of employment.

The group also visited a polyclinic comprised of different medical specialties in under one roof with preventative public health care, primary care, ophthalmology, physical rehabilitation and other specialty areas.

Undergraduate public health student Fabiana Echevarría said going to Cuba opened her eyes to a new world.

She said the trip taught her to experience the world as it is, rather than allowing preconceived perceptions to shape interactions.

“It also allowed me to witness firsthand why universal health care should be given priority to advance health in the U.S.,” Echevarría said.

Deidre Orriola (second from right) and Dr. Constance Visovsky of the USF College of Nursing (far right) with their homestay family. Dr. Visovsky attended to examine potential learning opportunities for USF nursing students in the future. (Photo courtesy of Deidre Orriola)

Orriola said she would like to offer another Cuba study abroad program to undergraduates in the future, examining the possibility of expanding it to a two-week experience.

She did say, however, that she plans to offer this trip again during spring break of next year.

“The trip allowed students to slowly comprehend the Cuban health system and as future health professionals, to improve our own system,” she said. “The students felt welcome for being a part of the Cuban life for such a short but a valuable period of time.”


Story by Tabassum Tasnim, USF College of Public Health