Academic advisers ask Obama to lift study abroad restrictions on Cuba

Twenty-eight schools signed the letter sent to the president.
Spencer Pearson / Graphic Designer

A national group of study abroad advisers sent a letter to President Barack Obama last week asking him to remove restrictions on academic travel placed on study abroad to Cuba in 2004. MU's advisers were not included in the letter but said they also support student travel to Cuba.

The letter was signed by 28 schools that are part of NAFSA, a group that represents international studies departments at universities throughout the country.

NAFSA spokeswoman Ursula Oaks said the letter was prompted by the Obama administration’s open attitude toward communication with Cuba.

“We are trying to contribute maintaining the momentum that has been building for the Obama administration to take action on this issue,” Oaks said in an e-mail.

Oaks said NAFSA is not looking for more universities to sign the letter as it has already been sent, but if enough schools are interested the organization might send an additional letter with an updated list.

Steven Rose, vice president for international affairs at the University of Indiana, said study abroad activity in Cuba was flourishing before the restrictions. The University of Indiana signed the NAFSA letter.

“We believe students would benefit a lot from being able to study in Cuba and do not feel that international education is being served well by continuing to block their access,” Rose said in an e-mail.

MU was not asked to sign the letter, but MU International Center Director James Scott was later contacted about it.

“NAFSA contacted me after the letter was sent, essentially hoping I would blog about it,” Scott said.

Scott supports the efforts to lift restrictions on educational travel to Cuba. He said MU students have studied abroad in Cuba prior to the restrictions placed in 2004 and he hopes students will have the same opportunity in the future.

According to Scott, Cuba offers an educational experience for American students unlike any other country, largely because of the nation’s isolation.

“Students can see cars on the road that were made in the 1950s, but more importantly you would also be exposed to the music, the food, the whole vibe of Cuba, and I think that is a very important thing," Scott said. "Also, you can see what it’s like to live under a socialist system, and I think that is a good opportunity for our students."

Some schools, such as the State University of New York at Oswego, have pursued licenses from the U.S. Department of The Treasury. Scott said if a significant number of MU students showed interest in studying abroad in Cuba, MU would look into acquiring a license.

Janis Perkins, assistant dean of international programs at the University of Iowa, one college that signed the NAFSA letter, detailed the difficulties of a study abroad program under the limitations.

Perkins said study abroad programs can be offered in Cuba if they are affiliated with a Cuban university, are at least 10 weeks long and will only take students from the specific university offering the program.

“Those three limitations make it highly unfeasible because one, Cuban universities aren’t equipped to host our students, two, most students who are interested in going to Cuba are interested on summer programs, and three, it’s just the nature of a lot of study abroad programs that they tend to be open to students from other schools, so for one university to recruit enough students to fill a program is rather challenging,” Perkins said.

Perkins said she believes the University of Iowa signed the letter because officials feel it is an excellent study abroad destination because of its unique health care, education and socioeconomic system.

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