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Shaw Bears in Cuba

Global Education Program Provides First Study Abroad Opportunity

When Shaw senior president Tyshawn White boarded a plane for the first time in his life this summer, it was only the first of many new experiences he would have over the next week. He and five classmates were on their way to Havana, Cuba as part of the Global Education Program, the University's first study abroad program.

"It was nerve-racking. I had never flown. I didn’t know what it entailed. I just knew I was going to die," says White with a laugh.  

Over the next eight days, White and his classmates would encounter things they’ve never experienced before – the blistering tropical heat, new foods, a paucity of English speakers, and yes - those iconic classic cars made famous in movies and postcards. The group was composed of sophomores and seniors with majors from Biology to Religion. Most had never been out of the country before, and out of the six, only three had ever been on an airplane.  

Perhaps the most important experience, however, was the opportunity to challenge preconceived notions of Cuba and its people.  

"We encountered so many friendly Cubans,” said White. “A lot of people give you these preconceived notions about the country before you get there. A lot of people told me that Cubans were going to be mean because we’re American. We really didn't get that. They could spot that we were American but they didn’t treat us any different."  

Aside from travel, each student in the program was required to complete a research project. Areas of focus included Santería, the Cuban Revolution, Socioeconomics of Cuba, Women of the Revolution, and Race in Cuba. Students researched these subjects while at home and had the opportunity to explore them in depth while abroad.  

While in Cuba, the students participated in daily lectures and toured the city, visiting museums and culturally and historically important sites. They learned about Cuba's pre-colonial history, its emergence as a Spanish colony, the revolution, and the island-nation’s struggle to survive the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. They also delved into the country’s unique religious and cultural traditions.  

“We learned so much during the lectures. There’s nothing like being there," said Torey Haynes, a sophomore majoring in Religion and Philosophy. “You get an appreciation for it because you get to experience a different part of the world. I’m so grateful that I had that opportunity."    

For Shaw senior Essence Shelton, the trip was a process of self-discovery, a sentiment that all six of the participating students echoed.  

"I learned the most valuable thing about going abroad is self-reflection and knowledge about the self," said Shelton. "I have gained a better perspective on my culture, as well as other people’s cultures, and I think that I’ve made an impact on my school by being the first to actually go study abroad.”  

Haynes said he is also proud to be able to represent Shaw as one of the first students to participate in the Global Education Program. "This experience opens the door for so many more opportunities for you to be an ambassador - to present those opportunities not only to students here, but wherever you may tell people about your experiences and about the study abroad program we have at the University," said Haynes.  

The Global Education Program is part of Shaw University's wider efforts to make their graduates more competitive in an increasingly global job market and was started with a grant from Shaw trustee Thomas Darden. But out of all the countries in the world, why choose Cuba?  

"Cuba is unknown to us," says Shaw University Director of Experiential Learning and Career Development, Nikesha Rollack. “We only know what’s told in the media. It’s one of those places that’s untapped. Anybody can go to London, but we were privileged enough to go to a place that no one knew a lot about.”

Diversity Global, LLC worked with Shaw to build the Global Education Program. Founder George Williams, who was on the trip and led the students’ daily lectures, said the purpose of the journey was to challenge students and help them build skills that they could bring back to campus and use for the rest of their lives.  

“Cuba is a place, for Americans in particular, that kind of has an exotic allure,” said Williams. “It’s kind of the forbidden fruit. What better way to challenge your preconceived notions - get you outside your box and add a different perspective to your repertoire – than going to Cuba? It’s about bringing some skills back with you that you can apply to tough questions or to your job.”

With the first trip complete, Rollack now has her sights set on expanding the program in the near future, increasing the number of participating students and adding locations like Cape Town, South Africa and The Galapagos Islands. Her goal is to have every department on campus connected to the study abroad program in some way so that students from all over campus can experience what they are learning in the classroom in the real world.

"My vision is that all of the division areas here on campus – that each division will have some piece of study abroad," said Rollack.  

As far as advice for other Shaw students who are considering studying abroad – the students say don’t be afraid to take chances and do your research.  

"Be open-minded about differences and about culture," says Shelton. "Don't be scared to take chances."

A good example comes from Shelton and her classmates’ encounters with Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion that combines elements of Catholicism with certain African religious traditions.  

"I went and got a spiritual reading, which is probably against my culture's norm to do so. But I took that opportunity and I gained a better perspective about myself, my religion, and other religions. I think that people should always take risks," said Shelton.  

"Really do the research about where you want to go," says White. "It'll help you when you get over there to really relate, to be able to respond and really have an intelligent conversation about what you’re learning."     

Students participating in the Global Education Program included: 

  • Torey Haynes – sophomore, Religion and Philosophy 
  • Essence Shelton – senior, Psychology
  • Tyshawn White – senior, Biology
  • Akilah Banks-Alexander, senior, Liberal Arts
  • Shanita Jefferson – senior, Exercise Science: Kinesiotherapy
  • Mya Riddick – sophomore, Sociology & Criminal Justice

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