July 28, 2017

In June, a group of five Buena Vista University professors embarked on a journey to Cuba as part of the McCorkle Fellowship program, interweaving their disciplines and personal interests and bonding as BVU colleagues and friends.

The 2017 McCorkle Fellows included:

  • Matthew Packer, associate professor of English
  • Melinda Coogan, professor of biology
  • Beth Blankers, professor of accounting
  • Melanie Hauser, associate professor of chemistry
  • James Hampton, professor of biology

“It's a fantastic thing to travel with a small group of faculty colleagues and see parts of the world you might not normally see,” said Packer, who led the trip. “I don't think many universities have anything like it. Travel helps us better understand the world and ourselves, and this opportunity allows us to pass that on to students.”

The decision to travel to Cuba came about following former President Barack Obama's decision to lift travel restrictions in 2016, after the island had been off limits to Americans since the Communist Revolution in the 1960s. “Cuba's going through historic changes and we wanted to see these changes for ourselves,” said Packer.

The Fellows visited a variety of cities and historical locations, including Matanzas, the “Athens of Cuba;” Cienfuegos, the “Paris of Cuba;” Trinidad, a colonial city that was founded in 1514; Jardines del Rey, a coral reef located on Cuba's northern coast; and Playa Giron, the Bay of Pigs.

“Bay of Pigs was interesting as the site of Cuba's defeat of the U.S.-backed invasion attempt in 1961, closely followed by the Cuban missile crisis, the closest the world's ever come to nuclear war,” said Packer.

“It's a fantastic thing to travel with a small group of faculty colleagues and see parts of the world you might not normally see. I don’t think many universities have anything like it. Travel helps us better understand the world and ourselves, and this opportunity allows us to pass that on to students.”

Dr. Matthew Packer

The group also toured Revolution Plaza and the Morro Castle in Havana, an eco-designed commune in Las Terrazas, a former coffee plantation, and a famous tobacco region known as Viñales Valley.

“It is well known that Cuban people lack basic economic freedoms, even despite recent reforms,” said Blankers. “Being in Cuba allowed us to listen to the people and better understand the real impact of these restrictions, as they described their struggles and the creative ‘work arounds' they implement to survive. We could feel the Cuban people's desire for opportunity and hope for improvement.”

The Fellows plan to incorporate what they learned from the experience into the classroom in the fall.

“I loved the music, the vibrancy, and resourcefulness of the Cubans, along with the literary influence of their heroes, like Jose Marti and Che Guevara,” said Packer. “I'll be introducing students to some of the poetry and magical realism of Cuban writers, along with the political situation: it's a tragedy, a cold war, still, between the U.S. and Cuba.”

In addition to integrating knowledge about coffee roasting into her Chemistry of Food course, Hauser said the trip gave her a greater appreciation for diversity. “By experiencing a culture that has been shaped throughout the centuries by colonization and revolution and is yet in our own backyard, I have a better understanding for the diversity of students that comprise our student body at BVU.”

Coogan noted how Cuba's recent adoption of sustainable practices will add depth to class conversations. “Our McCorkle trip to Cuba brought to light additional questions surrounding sustainability that I am eager to address within my upcoming ecology courses. I think most of us can agree on what constitutes a healthy environment, but what we seem to struggle with is the extent to which we are willing to sacrifice our comfort in order to maintain an environment that provides healthy resources, such as water, air, and soil, to the entire population.”

The Fellows also developed a genuine camaraderie throughout the two-week experience.

“The best part of the McCorkle trip was seeing the economy, culture, literature, music and natural history through the eyes of my colleagues,” said Hampton. “It is hard to imagine a better educational experience and a more effective way to build the abilities of the faculty.”

“I cherished the chance to get to know colleagues from different areas and have forged relationships that will further allow me to draw on their expertise in my teaching,” added Hauser.