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Changes in U.S.-Cuba relations prompt Niagara University students to explore Havana

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Mon, Apr 4th 2016 11:00 am
Drs. David Reilly, Chris Lee and Nicole Gerber are accompanying 22 NU students on a field-based research trip to Cuba this May.
Drs. David Reilly, Chris Lee and Nicole Gerber are accompanying 22 NU students on a field-based research trip to Cuba this May.

The U.S. and Cuba re-established diplomatic relations last July. As a result, Americans are permitted to travel to Cuba as long as their purpose falls within 12 broad categories of activities, including "educational activities by persons at academic institutions."

And now a new course on Cuban politics and society at Niagara University includes an intensive two-week research program in Havana and its surrounding areas.

The faculty-led, field-based research component of Cuban politics and society (POL 398) will take place May 16-29. Niagara University professors David Reilly, Ph.D., and Chris Lee, Ph.D., and Nicole Gerber, Ph.D., emergency manager for Roswell Park Cancer Institute, are co-teaching the six-credit course and accompanying the 22 students on the trip.

The travel itinerary, accommodations and meetings will be coordinated with Spanish Studies Abroad, which has provided unique learning experiences for students since 1969.

While in Cuba, students will have the opportunity to meet with government officials and diplomats, as well as U.S. ambassadors. They will also attend lectures by professors from the University of Havana who are experts in the Cuban economy and U.S.-Cuban relations.

The curriculum mirrors successful past programs that involve a semester-long course on campus at Niagara University followed by an intensive faculty-led research component abroad, including one in Ireland that Reilly participated in in 2008.

Reilly is the director of international studies and chair of the political science department at Niagara, while Lee is an associate professor of comparative politics.

"This is a unique and potentially life-altering opportunity for our students," Lee said. "They will be going to a country that they only know about through what has been, for the most part, a Cold War-era sort of narrative. They have a chance to experience, firsthand, a country that has endured decades of a hostile relationship with the U.S., yet is now at what is probably a very important point in their history, as the relationship between Cuba and the United States is revised.

"Cuba is unlike any other country in the world!"

According to the syllabus, the course introduces students to conflict resolution, peacemaking, community building and dispute management. Students will be familiarized with community development theory, conflict theory, principles of alternative dispute resolution strategies, and the application of these concepts to the historical socio-political development of Cuba. The course will also investigate the emergency management strategies of the country, its disaster recovery processes and its success with health care programs.

"I am most excited to experience the culture of Cuba and see how Cubans operate, bond and build their community with so few resources. I also want to learn more about their way of life and their views on politics," said NU student Isis Kay, a native of Liberia. "Also, because I'm majoring in hospitality, I'm interested to hear how the locals feel about the expected rise in tourism to Cuba due to the borders being opened."

The collection and analysis of data will be focused on the demonstration of an understanding of the theories of conflict resolution as they relate to international politics, and a review of policies enacted by the Cuban government to manage disasters and national emergencies. Students must also compare how countries differ in political orientation, and offer an explanation for why and how these variations occur.

The course is supported by Niagara University's study abroad program. NU representatives are working to ensure the students will be well-prepared to meet the challenges associated with travel, including cultural awareness and sensitivity. A portion of the application for the course required students to write an essay on a challenging cross-cultural experience in their life, and explain how they dealt with it and what they learned from the experience.

Reilly, Lee and Gerber conducted a site visit to Cuba in February. They examined SSA's casa particulares student housing in Havana, which is akin to high-quality bed-and-breakfast arrangements. The accommodations are located in the center of the city, close to the central meeting site of Hotel Havana Libre, near accessible transportation.

"The country is safe, captivating and an excellent location to research political, social and economic change," Reilly said.

For more information, call 716-286-8088 or email [email protected].

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