The highlight of this trip, in addition to walking the famous steps, was observing and talking to university students. I paid attention to race which is a topic that for the majority of the trip intrigued me because the rhetoric around race in Cuba is very different from that used in the U.S. . . . For the most part, I noticed that the school was pretty mixed. This made me curious about the racial make-up of the student body at the university. From what I could see, the school was pretty mixed with students from various genders.  However, rather than a concentration of a certain race, what I noticed was potentially a large group of students from middle to upper levels socio-economically. I came to this idea because I was noticing largely students that were well dressed and that had brand names on Thrasher, Vans, etc. Therefore, this was something I asked a group of students that we talked to. I was curious to see if they thought the typical student attending university, or at least attending the University of Havana, comes from a middle- or upper-class background. It’s hard to use the word “class” in Cuba, but there certainly are groups that financially are better off than the average Cuban, it’s this idea that I was trying to get at. The first response I get is that university is free in Cuba so anyone can be a student. I push back a little more offering up the observation that most of the taxi drivers I’ve spoken to have told us that they never made it to the university because they needed to start making money for their families. I asked about how the state helps to encourage these students to go to college. I don’t really get a direct response to this question, but they do tell us that there are programs that help students get books for university, but that it’s true that certain people chose to go straight into the workforce. I ask about the clothes that students were wearing and point out that there are a lot of brand names. I think this topic of the clothing that the university students were wearing interested me so much because Juan Jose when we asked him why he hadn’t gone to university if it was free mentioned that his dad would have had to buy him shoes to go to college and maintain him as a student. The girls tell us that some Cubans that get to travel bring these items in from the United States and sell them here legally with permits they get form the government. 


Ultimately, from examining these three students that we talked to, one had traveled to the United States, Colombia, and other countries in Latin America and they all had iPhones something that stood out so much because I noticed such a lack of these products for the average Cuban. Therefore, I took away from the experience the idea that making university free, in terms of no tuition, does not necessarily mean university becomes accessible to everyone. There is a distinction and for the most part I see students that come from better of families, at least economically, and therefore are able to be full-time students.



The first building I entered was the library. There were several people studying, mostly in groups and speaking out loud. The atmosphere was very different compared to the silence in places like Firestone and Julian Street Library. Here students fill out a form and take it to the counter to get books, but they cannot take them home. They have intranet, but no internet.

Upon leaving the library, there is a central courtyard surrounded by four buildings. The law faculty (where Fidel studied) is on the left, that of Mathematics and Informatics is on the right and in front is the Rectorate (building with a dome and columns). From the Rectorate you can see 88 steps (representing 88 revolutionary students, who marched peacefully and died, right there, defending the homeland). In addition, this is the staircase that appears in Soy Cuba.

On the steps we met Luis and Miguel, students of the Faculty of History and Philosophy. We were told that the admission process includes a fairly competitive test. While we were there, a history teacher, an older man, who wore a suit and tie passed by. He stopped to talk with them and was very kind to us too. Talking with the students was fascinating, as they began to tell us about the history of the university. They explained that the law faculty, like other historic buildings in Havana, are painted red and yellow colors that represent the blood of the martyrs and the victory of the revolution.

One of the things that caught my attention was that there was a sculpture of an owl in the central courtyard. When we asked about its meaning, they responded that it is not only a symbol of wisdom, but that the owl was given by Fidel in response to another blue-eyed owl that is on the roof of the Rectorship building. Fidel’s owl is dark because it represents the dark-skinned students who had access to university education after the revolution. Before the revolution, only white, privileged people were allowed to study. 



For the most part, all Cuban students live with their family in a part of the city. That is why daily life is more similar to that of a state university in the US instead of Princeton, where social life is much more connected to education. To see the differences between American and Cuban education, our interview with Sofia was very useful. For her, teachers are more loyal to the system and government and the theory of communism than students are, who question them. Sometimes there is conflict between them for that, she told us.


But also, the University of Havana is unique. All materials pass through flashdrive, including tasks and parts transferred from the book. We also asked questions about the Cuban revolution and what it means to them and for general and university education. It was sometimes difficult to communicate our message, because we had different definitions of The Revolution, and some students were confused by our questions. Olivia, for example, mentioned free education as an effect of socialism, and also told us that the communist theory of Engles, Lenin, and Marx are prominent in their curriculum. I overheard a class of contemporary socialism in Latin America (at least that was the subject of the lecture) and it was interesting to hear the difference between the teacher and the students, who noticed the failures of socialism in other countries more than the teacher.




We went to the University of Havana and immediately we met a professor who began to talk a lot with us and explain the history of the university, giving us a tour. We saw the law school where Fidel Castro studied for five years. We saw the libraries inside and the monuments scattered throughout the parks, including a Batistan tank that was captured by students from the University of Havana. We were also on the steps where the students began their march against the police on the eve of the revolution.


It was then that another teacher in history and philosophy called Pedro Ignacio Fernández invited us to a Cuban coffee at a canteen where Fidel Castro stayed for a while. The cantina, we learned, was owned by a Mexican who was very sympathetic to Fidel’s cause. Professor Fernández and his colleague were extremely courteous and friendly to us, which completely disarmed us, since they were willing to spend a couple of hours with some young foreigners. They told us more about the history of Cuba and the university than we could remember, but without a doubt I learned a lot. For example, the professors explained to us in detail the meaning of the national shield and the symbols of the country.




The campus was beautiful, located on top of a hill that overlooked the city and the ocean. Students gathered outside, some eating, some reading, some just talking amongst each other. Tori, Amy, and I approached a group of three girls who looked our age. The girls talked about their experience at the university: all three are studying to be lawyers. There are no private firms obviously, so they will be working for the state. They say their salary depends on “various things,” but that it is possible that they could make more as a waiter or taxi driver, however their passion is for law. When we asked if they like living in a socialist society, they respond “there are advantages and disadvantages” and they do not know if they would prefer a capitalist society, especially given the healthcare and educational equality that everyone is promised in Cuba. They insist that everyone can go to school because teachers intervene in the lives of students from impoverished families.