Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them. José Martí
Like stones rolling down hills, changes in U.S – Cuba relations have begun to garner momentum and are becoming visible in the media releases that herald the opening of the first U.S. hotel in 60 years, the clearing for six U.S airlines to takeoff for Cuba and the filming of “Furious 8” in Havana. But underneath those highly visible and somewhat one-sided events, lies a steady stream of people-to-people encounters that bring together U.S. and Cuban educators. These exchanges may not make the CNN line up, but are contributing to the normalization and humanization of Cuba-U.S. relations during the period of “the thaw /el deshielo.”
I was privileged to become a player on this “deshielo” stage when I participated in the first TIES – Taller para la Internalización de la Educación Superior (Workshop for the Internationalization of Higher Education)- in October of 2015. The workshop brought to the island faculty and administrators from 27 U.S. institutions interested in exploring collaborations with Cuban universities. Within a couple of days, it was evident that we were playing a small part in something larger and very powerful. I connected with Dr. Xiomara Garcia Navarro, dean of the Facultad de Ciencias Pedagógicas at Universidad de Cienfuegos and quickly began to explore potential opportunities for internationalization of teacher preparation programs at her institution and ours. According to Open Doors data, less than 4% of education majors in the U.S. participate in any study abroad program during their college career. Due in part to the restrictions imposed on Cuba by the Embargo and the blockade, even less Cuban pre-service teachers have had opportunities to study abroad.
During the months that followed the TIES workshop, I stayed in communication with Dr. Xiomara, faculty members from her university and members of the Ministries of Basic and Higher Education to whom she had introduced me. At the same time, we had conversations in our college about potential involvement with Cuba and Universidad de Cienfuegos and the decision was made to send a delegation to the Convocación Paulo Freire in April/May 2016.
The Paulo Freire event was quite different from TIES because this time around the U.S. delegations were in the minority. In fact, we were one of two U.S. universities represented. Our delegation was comprised of the dean of the College of Education, Dr. Kathryn Chval, Dr. Amalia Dache-Gerbino (Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis), Dr. Rachel Pinnow (Learning, Teaching and Curriculum; and TESOL faculty) and myself in my role as director of international and intercultural initiatives for the college. The four of us engaged widely with Cuban faculty and delegates from over 20 nations who had converged in Cuba for this conference where Paulo Freire’s ideology and his “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” were widely discussed. In the context of the “thawing” and normalization of relations between Cuba and the U.S., the world is watching how old patters or relating give ways to new patterns and what those patterns will turn out to be.
We feel that engaging with Cuban institutions and especially promoting exchanges among university faculties and k-12 educators can play a crucial role in building relatedness from otherness which is at the center of all our international engagement initiatives. Meaningful international education exchanges based on reciprocity and mutualism hold the potential for enhanced understanding and engagement among peoples. In May, the College hosted the visit of two representatives from the Universidad de Cienfuegos; Ms. Lourdes Pomares Castellón, Director of the Office of International Relations and Ms. Dayni Deysi Diaz Mederos, Academic Coordinator for the Office of International Relations to continue discussions for future collaborations that we hope will include faculty exchanges, international education opportunities for students and collaborative research. Mizzou Ed, Presente!
– Dr. Gabrielle Malfatti, Director of International and Intercultural Initiatives, College of Education, University of Missouri.