Cuba: A Messy, Complicated, Beautiful Island

  1. Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

For my STEP Signature Project, I participated in a 10 day study abroad over Spring Break to Cuba with 2 professors and several other students from the school of architecture, entitled Cuba: Architecture, Landscape, Urbanism. We visited Havana as well as a few other towns and cities throughout Cuba, focusing on the history of their built environment and the relationship their society has to their architecture and landscape. Along the way, we stopped for several cultural experiences, tried local foods, stayed at resorts and airbnbs, and tried our best to figure out what to make of this complicated country and its wonderful people.

  1.  What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?

My original reason for choosing this study abroad as my STEP project was my interest in comparing and contrasting how a relatively isolated country like Cuba approached urban design and landscape architecture. And that process was unquestionably interesting. The vast majority of Cuban structures post-revolution display a large amount of Soviet influence. As a group, we discussed the differences between Soviet/socialist modernism and American/western modernism. Cubans do some things similar to us, and others in different ways. For example, they use very little steel as a building material, since they don’t have extensive metal mining. This lead to the majority of their structures being built out of brick, wood, or concrete. The trip’s sketching requirements definitely helped me to understand this, as well as our group discussions. These discussions would have been incomplete without talking about the political environment that birthed these styles and methods, which leads me to my next point.

Pretty much as soon as we exited the plain, that interest widened to include Cuban politics, social norms, culture, music, and everything else. Prior to this trip I had never visited any other country, much less what is considered in many ways a third-world country, so it was very eye-opening. In America we tend to think that our way of doing things is the best way, if not the only way. In Cuba, many think the same of their own country. Our tour guide, who admittedly presented everything in an extremely biased way, proudly told us about their system of universal health care, free education systems, and food rations. We also learned from some locals that things may not be as grand as they seem, and that many people are hungry. The actions of the United States in isolating Cuba have directly impacted its people.

  1.  What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?

On the trip we visited many gardens, fortresses, cathedrals, parks, restaurants, city plazas, and other historic buildings. We sketched them, and studied their successes and failures, and how these lessons could or couldn’t be applied when designing in the U.S. However, there were other more personal moments that I remember that have made possibly more of an impact on me.

A few times on the trip, we ventured out into the nightlife and went to bars or clubs. Every time we went out we met Cubans who were always incredibly friendly (some seemed to be hoping to get some of your tourist money, but others were more genuine). The music and dancing, both traditional and contemporary, is lovely in Cuba. I enjoyed their nightlife quite possibly more than ours! It also gave me a new appreciation for Latin dance music.

The language barrier was something completely alien to me, but it was a welcome challenge. I know essentially no Spanish and so had a difficult time communicating sometimes, but a lot of Cubans know basic English and it wasn’t usually a problem. There were a few moments that neither of us could understand the other, and we had to do our best to get by, which was frustrating but also rewarding.

We visited an elementary level art school and got to see some musical performances and art by talented young Cubans. Even at their young age, they’re art was already pretty top notch. As a musician and saxophone player, I was especially touched by an alto sax solo given by a young boy who looked to be about 13. It reminded me how powerful music is and how it can transcend language, culture, and experience.

Another notable event happened towards the end of the trip. We stopped in Matanzas, a city on the northern coast of the island, to have a quick look around at a few different buildings and a famous public square. While I was sitting in the square with a couple other students, and old man approached. He had pretty bad teeth and looked pretty rough. He asked where we were from, and when he told him America, he was a bit surprised and happy and interlocked his fingers, saying that America and Cuba need to be allies again. The man remembered being a child before the revolution, that life was better then, despite being under a dictator. He seemed like someone who probably supported the socialist revolution in the beginning, and later on saw its flaws. We saw a similar sentiment throughout the trip; to the young generation of Cubans, it is considered stylish and cool to wear clothing with American flags on them. They want to participate in the global capitalist economy and raise their country out of poverty. I wonder if their Caribbean socialist utopia could have been more successful had the United States supported revolutionary government, or if the revolutionary leaders didn’t turn out to be even more oppressive dictators than the regime they replaced.

  1. Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?

The biggest takeaway for me from the trip was thinking about how Americans impact the world at large, both through government and tourism. For the last couple days of the trip we met up with a very intelligent Cuban architect and historian who had become friends with our professors previously. He talked about how, despite modernizing agricultural methods, their food shortage is becoming worse. This is due to the increase in tourism the country has seen. Pretty much every hotel we stayed at had lavish buffets for meals. Because tourists can pay much more than locals for meals, it is more profitable to sell to them. Likewise the Cubans working in tourism seemed to be much better off than many of the other Cubans we passed on the street. This problem is certainly true in many other tourism heavy countries throughout the Caribbean, but is becoming more of a problem in Cuba now that it has begun opening up and allowing more capitalist businesses to open. This realization got me thinking about whether or not tourism helps or hurts economies of other countries.

On the plane back, I decided it was definitely a valuable trip and I’m very glad I went. There is so many more experiences I didn’t write about here, but will be memories I have forever. I hope to find inspiration in my future professional landscape architecture work from the sketches and photographs I took on the trip. We got to see some of Cuba at its best, and also peel back the government propaganda of the tour guide to understand its worst. But it really is a beautiful country with lovely people, and I hope one day I’m able and allowed by our own lovely federal government to go back and see how it has changed.


 Abandoned National School of Arts, School of Ballet

House of the Cosmonauts (We stayed here one night!), Veradero

Me in Trinidad

Tobacco farmer in Vinales

Havana outskirts, shoreline

Tropicana Cabaret



Multicultural Histories and Legacies of London and Paris- Arianna Fine

My STEP Signature Project was the Multicultural Histories and Legacies of London and Paris study abroad trip. This experience combined all we learned in our spring course about service-learning, different cultures, people, and religions, and global issues into one. We started the trip by spending eleven days in London, and then finishing off with ten days in Paris. We did loads of sight-seeing and touring, but we also volunteered at the North London Action for the Homeless Shelter, met and spoke with the British League of Muslims, and took a tour of the Grand Mosque in relation to our topic of immigration in Paris.

Big Ben

Big Ben

I learned so much more than I ever expected to about different people, different cultures/religions, and most importantly about myself. I learned to navigate around language, different forms of transportation, and I became so much more aware of the challenges that people who have different backgrounds than me face.

I have gained such a deeper appreciation for the benefits we have as Americans, like freedom of religious and cultural practice. I think visiting the Grand Mosque in Paris was a perfect example of how two cultures and religions can come together to exist in harmony within a community. Paris, coming from a Catholic, monarchical history, showed a great amount of religious and cultural diversity. After seeing Muslims practice Islam freely in the Grand Mosque in Paris, it proved to me even further that everybody is the same and going through similar things. We all have our own religions, cultures, and practices, and it should not make us any different from the next person. Seeing these oppressed people practice their religion freely really made the trip so much more personal and real to me because I was able to firsthand experience the things that we only read about in newspapers and hear of in class. Thus, recognizing the privileges I have as an American was pivotal in my transformation of becoming a more cognitive and understanding citizen.

Jumping for joy in the rain at the top of the Eiffel Tower

Jumping for joy in the rain at the top of the Eiffel Tower

A time where I felt transformation taking place was during our visit with the British League of Muslims. I had walked into our meeting completely unaware of the issues that Muslims face in every day life. I knew they suffered from oppression because of the war, especially in regards to being profiled as terrorists, but I did not know that they suffer from way more than inaccurate portrayal. Muslims in the Middle East, and other parts of the world, are not even allowed to properly practice their religion and culture because of the oppression that they face. I had known little to no information on the Islam religion, so after talking with these smart, educated, and community-oriented Muslims, I felt as if I gained a new appreciation for the freedom to practice religion that we have in the U.S. I think the fact that we were talking with Muslims who work in the community to advocate for other Muslims who do not have a voice, really shows how strong these people are. I gained such a great respect and awareness for the Muslim community, and I really learned a lot about the oppression that these people face on a daily basis. I hope to continue learning about the issues in the Middle East, and how to be an advocate for Muslims in my own community.

After visiting Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, we volunteered at the North London Action for the Homeless Shelter. This experience greatly shaped the rest of the trip for me because it really opened my eyes to how people, no matter where you are, are all the same and going through similar things. We spoke with one man about the current elections and how he supported Trump because he reminded him of the mayor of London during the time when he worked with the Air Force in England. He explained how someone like Trump, with a knowledge of money management, would be able to turn England around and advocate some of the money from the wealthier to the more middle-class. Although I did not support this man’s opinions, it was so surprising to see that someone halfway across the world can have so much knowledge on something that is directly affecting us back in the U.S. Also, taking a moment of reflection after this service, I realized that these people at the homeless shelter are smart and invested in their community, and they all had jobs and hardships just like everyone else has. This experience gave me this sense of unity with people who are so different from me, simply because we were able to find common threads amongst us when talking about different topics and issues. This is when I realized that no matter how different someone from a faraway place in a completely different circumstance seems from me, we may be way more similar than we thought. This is why being a global citizen is important because it means we look out for each other, even if we may not be similar in culture, religion, political views, or appearance.

Besides these multicultural experiences, another highlight of the trip for me was getting to know my classmates and teachers. I learned how to better work with others, sacrifice for other people, and be a better friend/ally. Even if it was a small act of going to a cafe that did not have any food that I wanted to eat, if it meant the group would be happy, then I was fine with it. I think this really demonstrates how the community, and how global society as a whole should be. We should better work towards the goals of the group, the community, and the world, rather than being selfish and not helping our fellow man. This trip was the experience of a lifetime, and I had an amazing time getting to know everyone on the trip, people of other cultures and places, and myself.



Silly faces at the Catacombs

Silly faces at the Catacombs

In regards to my academic life, I hope to continue meeting new people and finding similarities amongst one another. As a Dance major, working with people is the entire basis of being a dancer, so being able to better understand where someone comes from and how they operate is very beneficial. This is especially helpful in my professional goal of becoming a dance teacher, since I will be able to navigate how to work better with people of all backgrounds, ages, and so forth. In terms of my personal life, I hope to meet new people and find commonalities between us because that is how some of the very close friendships I have made formed during this trip. Even if it is a small commonality, like sharing the same name as someone, practicing these interactions with people who are different than me has opened me up to a plethora of new knowledge and experiences.

This trip was so valuable to me because it really fueled my love of knowledge, traveling, and educating. I hope to continue traveling and learning about different places and people because I have gained such a hunger to learn and stay up to date on global/current issues. I cannot wait to utilize the things I’ve learned in my every day life, and to teach others. I think the greatest thing I have taken away from this trip is learning how to just talk and spend genuine time with people because that has taught me much more than a chapter in a history textbook has.



Soaking in the sun at the Louvre

Soaking in the sun at the Louvre

Seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream

Seeing A Midsummer Night’s Dream