Laughter and bouncing salsa music weave through the modern classroom, uniting twenty college students in an energetic buzz. They speak excitedly, with gestures and broad smiles, their peers listening and nodding earnestly in agreement and shared inspiration. On two large screens, the students have been wirelessly projecting maps, Google searches, video clips, and photos, all documenting the once-in-a-lifetime experience from which they have just returned: a week-long educational excursion to eastern Cuba.
These young men and women, freshmen through seniors at the College of William & Mary, are part of a unique new course spearheaded by Professors Ann Marie Stock and Troy Davis under the university’s new general education or “COLL” Curriculum. Entitled “Curate, Connect, Cuba,” the class emphasizes the development of positive cultural relations between Cuba and the U.S. through the sharing and celebration of art, media, and individual connections.
“We seek to build on our institution’s liberal arts tradition,” notes Stock, “by connecting students with issues, ideas, and individuals from a context that differs from our own in some ways, but also shares a great deal.”
“Students document this experience,” adds Davis, “with photos, on video, and in journals. This contributes to their reflection on and processing of the learning experience.”
Through its four designated “teams” of students (Promote, Curate, Track, and Profile), the class embraces a style of independent, project-based learning that is uniquely impressive, even for a liberal arts institution like the College.
“There is a lot of individuality and ownership in our work,” says Nathaniel Clemens, a member of the Curate Team. While the professors and other support staff are a driving force of encouragement, student initiative is a key component in the course’s success.
The Curate Team, for example, has been instrumental in the exhibition of “UnMade In Cuba: Carteles de Cine,” a collection of Cuban film posters designed for films that were never made (so-called “ghost posters”). It is currently on display in the Botetourt Gallery of Swem Library and is open to the public. These students are also attempting to create an online version of the exhibit, “which we hope will make this beautiful work accessible to a larger population,” according to Clemens.
The Track Team, aptly named, has recorded the progress of this exhibition from the prep of the posters to the active influx of tours. They are the students responsible primarily for filming, interviewing, and otherwise documenting the class and its projects, particularly the trip to Cuba. Some of their footage can even be viewed as historic recording, for in their journey, the students became the very first U.S. University to visit Televisión Serrana (TVS), a community media collective that the class joined on location in the Sierra Maestra Mountains of Eastern Cuba.
Although the entire class grew quite close with the members of this collective, the students of the Profile Team have been specifically tasked with creating a multimedia profile of this organization.
“From the beginning, our group realized how special TVS is and how passionate their filmmakers are,” says senior Cindy Centeno. “After our visit to TVS…we were blown away…Sitting with them and listening to what they had to say further proved that they are some of the most hard-working and dedicated filmmakers in the world…Their efforts are inspiring.”
Similar feelings are echoed throughout the class teams: inspiration and gratitude seem to be first and foremost on the students’ minds when speaking in general about their experiences, especially the Spring Break trip.
“I can’t begin to explain how vital traveling to and experiencing Cuba really was to my group’s project, and my own personal growth as a scholar and American citizen,” notes Jenny Horner, an Anthropology and Hispanic Studies double major, and a member of the class Promote Team. “Cuba was more than a place to me…Cuba was a being, alive in every sense of the word.”
“This workshop has been life-changing,” Centeno agrees. “We (the class) are a community; we are a family and we will forever be tied to one another because of this experience.”
As for their perceptions of the Cuban people, this first-wave of student ambassadors glow with talk about the warmth and kindness they received on the island.
“Everywhere we went we were welcomed with open arms,” says Clemens, “A key word we experienced in Cuba was “nosotros” (meaning “we,” or “us”). There is a strong sense of community on the island, and we hope to invoke that sentiment in our work by creating a final product that emphasizes connecting and shared experiences, even if we all come from different backgrounds.”
Horner, whose Promote Team has worked to create a collaborative art project among elementary students in Cuba and local students in V.A., couldn’t agree more.
“The projects (of the class),” she says, “are valuable in crafting new relationships because they involve each party sharing a little piece of themselves, something that hasn’t been done in 50 years…we intend to embark on this journey of cultural understanding and promotion on equal footing––as one team from two places.”
These words are particularly poignant as the students, back again in their modern classroom, pause their slideshow of memories to read a message from Carlos Rodríguez, one of their Cuban guides and mentors, which has just been projected onto the screen. The message speaks of friendship in roughly translated English, of the kind of deep connection that lasts across time and distance. Some of the students are misty-eyed, and reach out to one another. The room is quiet…silent, in fact. For all the bilingualism, the multilingualism, the student writers and translators present here today, it seems there are some experiences there are no words for.
About the Author: Alexandra Granato is a student at the College of William & Mary and a member of the “Curate, Connect, Cuba” class.
Photo Credit Top Row L-R: Claire Seaton, Kayla Sharpe, Nathaniel Clemens
Photo Credit Bottom Row L-R: Jorge Luis Barber, Kayla Sharpe, Sydney MaHan