When I first considered my options for study abroad programs, the idea of living in Havana, Cuba for a semester was exciting but slightly nerve-racking. Would the already stressful process of studying abroad be harder with less access to communication back home? How would the tense and constantly-shifting relationship between the United States and Cuba affect my ability to get there in the first place?
Travel Warning Released
This second question was addressed in September 2017 when the U.S. State Department released a travel warning for Cuba, citing a mysterious set of ailments affecting United States diplomats. A leading theory was that the officials were targeted by “sonic attacks” that caused a range of symptoms including brain damage and hearing loss. The specifics of what happened are still unclear.
The confusion surrounding the “sonic attacks” made me question my desire to go to Cuba. Everything seemed too uncertain. I was mostly worried about how United States policy changes could affect my ability to go, although concerns about possibly being in physical danger did come up as well. It didn’t help that when I told people about my plans, they frequently responded with, “Oh, you’re allowed to do that?” It just seemed easier to give up altogether and choose a different program. But at that point, I already had my heart set on Cuba. As a sociology major, I knew that studying in Havana would provide me with an unparalleled opportunity to learn more about a society very different from that of the United States.
In Uncertain Times
So, I did what I always do in a moment of uncertainty: I turned to Google. In the months leading up to my departure, I kept myself informed on what experts were saying about the incidents while frequently checking to see if any new restrictions would prevent me from following through on my plans. I also kept in close communication with the IFSA program advisor for Cuba and my study abroad office at my home university. I felt slightly more in control of the situation by keeping myself informed. At the same time, I had to accept that the decisions being made were out of my control. Thankfully, IFSA allowed me to choose a back-up program in case I was unable to go to Cuba. This made the entire process much less stressful for me.
Safety in Cuba
Now that I’m safely in Cuba, I can confidently say that all of the preparation and research was entirely worth it. Personally, I feel very safe and welcomed here. From my conversations with the others in my program, it’s clear that they feel similarly. I know that I have many people supporting me, including the program’s resident director and my host family. We had long conversations during our orientation about health and safety topics including what to do during an emergency and how to navigate the city. My host family has been incredibly warm and inviting; they always make sure that I and the other students living in their home feel safe and comfortable.
I have also felt very safe in my interactions with new acquaintances made here in Cuba. People here tend to be very warm and welcoming. Like any major city, there are things to watch out for, such as petty theft. However, I feel very equipped to deal with these situations thanks to our orientation. And so far, I have absolutely no reason to believe that I am in any physical danger due to “sonic attacks.”
Even though it took a lot of planning, I am very happy with my choice to study abroad in Cuba. Looking back on my journey to get here, I believe anyone planning on studying abroad should take similar precautions. My advice would be to learn about the place you plan to live in for a semester, keep in close contact with your support systems, and consistently check in with yourself about how you’re feeling. All study abroad programs require a bit of a risk, regardless of a travel warning.
Amanda Grolig is a sociology major at Haverford College and studied abroad with IFSA at the Universidad de La Habana Partnership in Cuba in the spring 2018. She served as a Health and Safety Advisor for IFSA through the Work-to-Study Program.