July 20 marks one year since the Cold War between the United States and Cuba officially ended.
Central Michigan University sophomore Bella Barricklow already has stories to share about her recent experiences in this country that was all but shut off from U.S. citizens for 54 years.
The English major from Ann Arbor spent the month of June studying abroad in Cuba. Barricklow is the first CMU student to study abroad there since the U.S. and Cuba restored diplomatic ties.
"The most important part of my learning experience in Cuba, beyond the language and culture, was that, though the people there seem to have very little, they always have quite a lot that they're willing to share," she said. "Cuba offered the realization that everyone has something they can give, even if it's not material, and also the idea that it doesn't matter what you have or don't have in your hands, it's about whether or not you choose to open them to others."
Barricklow's experience was coordinated through a joint effort between CMU Study Abroad and Academic Programs International. She said a defining moment came during a conversation she had in the home of a Cuban artist she knew only as Nico.
Nico hosted a dinner for Barricklow and four API students from other U.S. universities who were studying Spanish at the University of Havana. His long, narrow house in Old Havana doubles as his art gallery, and he treated his guests to a homemade meal featuring arroz moro —rice and Cuban black beans — bread, and fresh mango and pineapple.
"Something Nico said is that you can't try and know Cuba, you just have to feel it," said Barricklow, who is a CMU honors student. "You have to meet the people and be a part of everything around you."
Nico's advice and API-facilitated activities guided Barricklow's four-week experience. She connected with Cuban culture by directly interacting with people on the streets, visiting with residents who lived through the Cuban Revolution and enjoying the country's fine art.
She noted that many other countries and cultures place priorities on athletics such as baseball and soccer. While these are present in Cuba, fine arts are its collective focus.
"They put a lot of value in their art, and their ballet is among the best in the world," Barricklow said. "The government has set it so everyone can afford to go to the ballet."
'I'd go back to Cuba in a heartbeat'
This was her first time studying abroad, but Barricklow previously traveled to countries such as Costa Rica, Honduras and Mexico with her mother, Angela, who teaches Spanish at Pioneer High School in Ann Arbor. These opportunities and taking Spanish classes in high school prepared her for conversations with Cuban residents.
Still, Barricklow said there is a very different style to the country's primary language because American culture and the English language haven't influenced it.
"We still could communicate, but it's like Cuba has its own language — almost as though they seem to cut off the endings of some of their words," she said.
Going into the experience, she was anxious about not knowing what to expect. She said usually when people travel to other countries, they can talk with others who have traveled there to get their perspectives and learn some tips for their visit. Considering that so few Americans have been to Cuba over the past five decades, she went in with an open mind.
"It was the best experience of my life, by far," she said. "I plan to visit other countries, but I'd go back to Cuba in a heartbeat."
Barricklow recalled a game that people on the streets of Cuba play is guessing the nationality of tourists and visitors passing by them. She said throughout the entire time in Cuba, nobody ever guessed she and her API classmates were Americans because before last July, few Americans have visited their country since 1961.
With diplomatic ties restored between the two countries, more people from the United States will continue to visit Cuba. This includes CMU students studying abroad. According to Dianne De Salvo, CMU study abroad director, students will continue to have opportunities to study in Cuba.