By Kristina Denzel Bickford ’93
Abington Friends is deepening its dedication to experiential learning, and my experience in Cuba is a perfect example of why this kind of education is so transformative. We constantly say we live in a world where we are so interconnected, but the truth is there are places that still seem impossible to reach. Cuba is a mere 90 miles from Miami, and yet it feels so far away, so foreign, so much like you had to travel back in time to arrive there. I couldn’t have understood the real impact of this without seeing it with my own eyes.
I traveled to Cuba this summer ostensibly as a science teacher eager to see the different biomes in the island country, and the unique animals that lived there. I hoped to see the smallest bird in the world, the bee hummingbird (I did!), the garish national bird, the Cuban Trogon (I did!); and to interact with organic farmers and see if I could find an answer to my question: If pesticides came back to Cuba, would they start using them again (I did, and the farmers said they wouldn’t).
As a biology teacher who focuses on evolution, seeing organisms adapted to their environment in situ enriches my ability to share deeply with students when we discuss the incredible diversity of life on Earth. Knowing about these organisms from the perspective of being literally immersed in their natural habitats is an incredible gift to be able to share.
But anyone who travels knows that the truly important lessons one learns from the experience are not predictable. If you are lucky to really interact with people from the place you are visiting, you have the chance to see the world from a different perspective. In Cuba, I also had the opportunity to see my country through the eyes of people who saw the U.S. as an aggressor. Their entire recent history is built on that central belief, much the same way that my entire understanding of Cuba as a forbidden, Communist place was built.
At AFS, we are focused on creating citizens of the world, and that means understanding who we are, but also being open to understanding the perspectives of others. While talk of the flora and fauna I saw in Cuba will certainly make its way into my classroom, perhaps more important is my deeper understanding of a different culture. The Cubans I interacted with were extremely proud of their country, community-minded and hopeful that softening relations between our countries would open the way for economic development and opportunity.
Cuba is a country of color, rhythm, nature and history and is worth learning so much more about.
The Cubans I met were open-minded and warm, and as we talked and talked about history and politics, we often found ourselves mutually shaking our heads at how complicated it all was, and how simple we found collaboration could be — once bread was broken, a relationship forged.
Today, more than ever, I think it’s important for us to travel abroad and meet people from all different cultures and communities. Otherwise, we run the risk of blindly believing narratives created by others, without ever having seen things with our own eyes.
A suggested reading and viewing list:
“Dreaming in Cuban” by Cristina Garcia; “Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know” by Julia E. Sweig and
the “Cuba Libre” Netflix documentary series.