Up Next

HBCUs open up educational pipeline to Cuba

Educational, cultural exchange efforts show potential for Central State, other schools

When President Barack Obama blazed a trail to initiate the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba after a 50-plus-year hiatus, the narrative focused on the potential bonanza for tourism and trade.

But education is also part of the new script — or at least Central State University in Ohio is the historically black college or university (HBCU) that hopes so.

“The University of Havana has been looking for colleges with agricultural programs to partner with,” Central State president Cynthia Jackson-Hammond told The Undefeated. Jackson-Hammond, the first female president at Central State, believes her school fits that description.

She was part of an HBCU delegation that visited Cuba in late May. The group was led by popular radio personality Tom Joyner and his son, Thomas Joyner Jr., the president and chief executive officer of the Dallas-based Tom Joyner Foundation.

The delegation’s other members were: John Rudley, outgoing president at Texas Southern University; Raymond Burse, outgoing president at Kentucky State University; Tashni-Ann Dubroy, president of Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina; Lester Newman Jr., president of Jarvis Christian University in Hawkins, Texas; and Michael O. Adams, director of the master’s of public administration program at Texas Southern. Texas state Sen. Royce West, a board member with the Tom Joyner Foundation, was also part of the group.

“The University of Havana has a strong agricultural interest, that’s why I went,” Jackson-Hammond explained. “It’s a chance to learn the values of the people; it’s a chance to learn about their culture. It’s really a learning experience. It wasn’t a vacation; we went to open a pipeline.”

Because subtropical Cuba has only two clearly defined seasons, Jackson-Hammond believes Central State’s innovative water-resource management program can be a key component in forming an educational alliance with the University of Havana to explore methods to improve crop irrigation and harvesting, as well as upgrade drinking water.

Cuba’s dry season lasts from November through April and rainy season from May through October (the hurricane period). “It’s about purification of water,” Jackson-Hammond said. “Freshwater vs. salt water; the science of draining water from weeds, and improving access to clean water.”

In 1987, Central State launched the first residential undergraduate program in interdisciplinary water-resource management in the United States. It also is the only such program at an HBCU.

Rare opportunity for change

On Dec. 17, 2014, Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro simultaneously announced a new course of relations between the United States and Cuba, the largest nation in the Caribbean. After 53 years of the two nations giving each other the cold shoulder, there was a thaw in relations that has already opened the door to cultural exchanges.

Because of a two-yearlong period of deteriorating relations between the nations when Fidel Castro assumed power, then outgoing U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered the closing of the U.S. embassy in Havana, thereby severing diplomatic ties with Cuba on Jan. 3, 1961. At the time, Castro, the nation’s new prime minister, had accused the United States of harboring embassy spies, while the United States charged Cuba with an unprovoked and unwarranted promotion of Soviet Union-backed communism in the Western Hemisphere.

The Cuban embassy in the United States and the U.S. embassy in Cuba reopened on July 20, 2015. When Obama visited Cuba in March, he said it would only be a matter of time before Congress would lift the trade embargo, which Cuban officials claim has cost the country $1.1 trillion. “The embargo’s going to end,” he said at the time. “When, I can’t be entirely sure. The reason is that what we did for 50 years did not serve our interests or the interests of the Cuban people.”

The Obama administration also is pushing to restore more than 100 daily round-trip commercial flights to Cuba, an island nation only 90 miles from the southern coast of Florida. That would be welcome news for Jackson-Hammond and Central State.

“I’m hoping to get students from Cuba on my campus,” she said. “Especially students in STEM [science, technology, engineering and mathematics]. And add agriculture — I call it STEMA. I hope we can let the academics, not politics, drive the relationship.”

Jackson-Hammond said the HBCU contingent participated in classes, presentations and discussions on such topics as health care, education, public policy and policy administration, with university faculty, including Nestor Garcia Iturbe, professor in the Graduate Institute of International Relations, at the University of Havana.

Despite the U.S. trade embargo and poverty issues, Cuba touts its advanced national health care (second-best doctor-to-patient ratio in the world) and educational systems (99 percent youth literacy rate).

Listening, learning tour was ‘very intense’

“It was very intense,” Jackson-Hammond said. “One of the things you learn in Havana is that you learn to listen. The lecture on policy administration was very informative and fascinating because it showed the differences in policy in Cuba and the United States.

“Some people get their impressions of Cuba from watching [1950s sitcom] I Love Lucy, with Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, but that’s make-believe.”

She also said a common theme during the discussions was that of Cuban university and ministry of education speakers repeating that they wanted respect and that they didn’t want outsiders hell-bent on trying to change their culture or values, saying instead, if need be, they can change on their own.

Jackson-Hammond expressed immense pride in promoting an international feel at Central State, proudly saying that 13 countries, with “13 flags displayed on campus for each nation,” are represented among her students and that she encourages her U.S.-born students to travel for exchange programs around the globe.

“When my students come back,” she said, “they come to me and say, ‘Thank you. I appreciate America even more now.’ ”

Newman highlighted the Cuban visit in a statement: “It brought to light the impact of the trade embargo on the Cuban culture and lives of the Cuban people.” Dubroy added, “One of Shaw University’s goals is to strengthen the collegiate journey by exposing our students to the positive aspects of multicultural experiences. Partnering with countries like Cuba in a global exchange program will heighten the authenticity of our academic programs.”

Joyner Jr. said he is in the midst of planning a second mission to Cuba for this fall. “This trip was a major step forward in helping these HBCUs learn about how they could play a role in the new Cuba,” he explained. “I think the representatives of these schools picked up some very valuable information that they’ll be able to use to create some new opportunities for their students and faculty.”

Said Jackson-Hammond, “I believe within five years, there will be a major influx of tourism of Americans going to Cuba. And I want Central State to be part of that. I want Central State to play a major role in that change.”

She then offered this bit of advice from her four days in Cuba when it’s not raining: “It’s very hot, humid and dusty. Bring comfortable shoes for walking and lightweight clothes for wearing.”

Gregory Clay is an editor, writer and television/podcast commentator focusing on current news events. Based in Washington D.C., he has worked at Newsday and McClatchy and once gave a speech at a convention for the Texas State Bar Association.