So you wanted to study in Havana…

Somehow, it is already my fourth week of studying abroad in Cuba and my classes are in full swing at La Universidad de la Habana (UH). I’m just trying to take it day by day, because if I think too much about how quickly the days are beginning to go by, my head and my heart start to hurt.

UH is a gorgeous campus, with a hilltop view of the city that extends towards the sea. It’s as if Bascom Hill was in the tropics, and had a statue called “Alma Mater” instead of Abraham Lincoln. It also has an enormous staircase, which makes the hill easier to climb if you’re late to your 8 a.m.

PHOTO OF ALMA MATER AT UNIVERSIDAD DE LA HABANA BY LAURYN AZU

I really didn’t know what to expect as a student in a place like this. I didn’t come with any specific sort of plan for what I’d study either, which is probably for the best. I’m learning that it’s almost impossible to plan ahead here. I watched a bunch of vlogs and read articles about what it’s like to travel in Havana, but really nothing could have prepared me for my daily experience studying here, because the only other place I’ve ever been a college student is UWMadison. So, what is my day to day like here? I wake up. I eat breakfast with my roommates. I go to a class. I eat a snack or lunch at a spot near campus. I might go to another class. I have time to spare in the late afternoon. I eat dinner with my roommates. I try to find another activity to do before I end my day (watching telenovelas with my roommates, going out for ice cream, attending rehearsals for the university’s theater group). I shower and I go to bed. Simple. Now that I have a set schedule, the days don’t feel as long or as chaotic as they used to. For the first two weeks of the semester, all of the semester abroad students had a shopping period where we could sit in on any class available to us at UH. When I first heard in orientation that we had 14 whole days to decide on classes, I didn’t really understand why. In hindsight, I needed every single one of those days to make my final decision on what I would be taking here.

Semester-long study abroad students here can only take classes in the departments of Arts, Letters, History, Philosophy, and Sociology. None of us knew what would for sure be available to us when we committed to this program. UH only published its semester course offerings right when we arrived, so we essentially had one weekend to look over all of the classes we could take before we had to start going.

At UW-Madison, there is an entire database at your fingertips with every class offered the upcoming seamster, posted months ahead of time. I would be able to go online to my student portal to see when and where are my classes and who my professors are. I could even log into Canvas to see the syllabus that’s posted, and if I felt especially courageous, I’d do the first readings or assignments before class even started. In Cuba, things don’t work this way. Actually, it takes some trial and error to find your class in the right building in the correct room at the originally listed time. The very first course I wanted to try here, Political Economy II, was moved to a completely different day and time, but me and the two other foreign students who wanted to take this course didn’t know as we waited silently in an empty room for 15 minutes for a professor to walk in and start teaching.

In this moment, I struggled to hide my shock. My American college student brain just couldn’t understand how cancelling a class on the first day and moving it to the next day doesn’t screw everybody else’s schedule. But that’s really the magic of the carrera system that UH uses, as do most other Latin American universities.

The carrera system is when all students in a particular major and year are in the same classes and essentially have the same schedule. If UW-Madison used the carrera system, I would only take classes with other sophomore-year Journalism students, and I would be required to take every class the department says that I have to, or else I wouldn’t get my degree. That’s why it’s not a big deal if a class moves from Monday at 9:45 am to Tuesday at 2 pm, for example. If the students in that carrera have that time slot open in their class schedule, it’s an easy switch. The only people who would need to reconsider are those who are not in the carrera but want to take the class, and have to balance classes in other departments. It’s a privilege that we can choose what courses we want to take out of multiple carreras, because students who study abroad at UH are the only ones who can. When a class here is cancelled for the day, the jefe de salón, a sort of class president for each carrera, tells their classmates so that they don’t come. Classes here get cancelled for all kinds of reasons, ranging from power shortages to a professor’s sudden illness. One my friends in the program told me that her class was cancelled because of a soccer game. I’m definitely not the one to complain about canceled classes, but since all of my courses meet only once a week, I’m worried about forgetting course material in the meantime.

Besides the change in scheduling, another big change for me are the class sizes. Every class I’ve taken here has between 20 and 40 people, and since they’re all in the same carrera, they already have established friend groups. It sort of reminds me of high school. We were encouraged to take classes within the same carrera, so that we’d have a better chance of getting to know Cuban students.

All of my classes are in Spanish, of course. I tried to choose classes where the professor uses a PowerPoint so it’s easier for me to follow along with what they say. The strangest, but also the best part of school here are the little breaks that they have in the middle of classes. It’s a small thing that I don’t take for granted: I need that time to regroup and refocus during power lectures in a different language. These breaks are really smoking and bathroom breaks for us, and I’ve observed that lighting a cigarette in the classroom or the hallway is perfectly acceptable.

By the end of a class, if you want the course material from that day, you must bring a flash drive so you can download them from the professor’s computer. It’s nice because I’ve been able to get all of my readings this way — the scramble for expensive textbooks that I dread every semester at UW-Madison doesn’t exist here. Because of the emphasis on accessible education, class materials are free.

I’m proud of myself for filling a whole course load with professors who lecture at a pace I can mostly understand, whose times coordinate, and are on subjects that I am genuinely interested in. My courses are Cuban TV and Video, Cuban Economics, Cuban Art III, Afro-Caribbean Studies, Cuban Cinema, and Rural Culture of Cuba. I can’t say I would have figured this all out on my own either. These past few weeks I’ve learned I have to rely a lot on the people I’m doing my study abroad program with, because being here has been such an adjustment. I’ve had to trust their word that a professor would be a good fit, they’ve helped me understand assignments, and they’ve encouraged me to try classes that I never would’ve considered otherwise. Applying to go abroad was very much a solitary experience for me, but I understand now that solidarity with other students is how I will get through this semester.