Seven University of Mississippi students got the chance to explore Havana for two weeks in December through the Dance in Cuba Study Abroad Program.
The course, led by Jennifer Mizenko, UM professor of theatre arts and movement, allowed students to study contemporary dance and ballet alongside renowned Cuban dance company Malpaso. The group of young women performed their dance piece, choreographed specifically for them by Malpaso artistic director Osnel Delgado, with the Cuban dance company at the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts on campus in January.
Students Madeleine Bradley, junior exercise science major from Memphis, Tennessee; Madeline Friedman, freshman art history major from Madison, Wisconsin; Mary Lacy Lusk, freshman undeclared major from Troy, Alabama; Rachel McKellar, junior English major from Purvis, Mississippi; Makenzie Menaker, freshman undeclared major from Mobile, Alabama; Lydia Myers, junior musical theatre major from Laurel, Mississippi; and Victoria Penegor, sophomore math major from Boulder, Colorado, studied dance styles, including the traditional Cuban and Latin styles of salsa, rumba and flamenco.
But they did much more than just dance each day. The students stayed in the homes of Cuban families during the two-week program, and the immersive experience allowed them to see what it is like to live life in Cuba as a professional dancer.
“I personally learned so much about Cuba, dance, but also myself on study abroad,” Friedman said. “You are taken to a place where you have never lived, and I was only there for two weeks, but I really did live there. You learn more about yourself living in another country than just living at home and doing the same thing every day. You are exposed to so much. I personally grew up a lot on that trip.”
The students studying abroad got the perfect combination of living like a local and sightseeing through several excursions booked through International Studies Abroad, an organization that provided the group with a guide during their stay.
“If I had gone to Cuba without going through study abroad, I don’t think I would have learned half as much as I learned on that trip,” McKellar said. “It was definitely jam-packed with information that was easily taken in because of the experiences we had every single day.”
Highlights of the trip included dancing salsa atop a swanky Havana hotel, visiting pristine beaches, seeing a show at the famed Club Tropicana, touring the colorful streets of the historic Old Havana, riding through the city in a 1950s convertible and exploring La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, a former factory turned art gallery, nightclub, restaurant and theater.
“Old Havana was honestly the most beautiful place I’d ever been,” Penegor said. “The colors of the buildings are almost like colors that you’ve never seen before. And the architecture’s beautiful, all the streets are even beautiful. It’s just an indescribable place. You see pictures of it, but it’s like you don’t know what it looks like until you are actually there.”
Many of the students did not speak Spanish prior to the trip, but the language barrier never presented a problem. Every student interacted with locals, even developing new friendships.
“The people were amazing,” Myers said. “Everyone was so friendly and so welcoming. Everyone that we interacted with was so warm to us. It’s such a wonderful place, and I wish everyone could experience Cuba.”
The mission of Ole Miss Study Abroad is not only to learn outside the classroom but also to experience and appreciate another culture. Mizenko said she knew that dance was so ingrained into Cuban culture and felt the previously restricted island was the perfect place for her students to grow as dancers and learn independence.
“To have that greater picture of the world is so important,” Mizenko said. “In the United States, we think the world revolves around us, and it’s so good to break open the eyes and your heart and see how other people live.”
Although this particular trip was one of the shorter study abroad programs, many of the students said it left a lifelong impact on them.
“I’ve learned to love and respect and learn about a culture I didn’t know I was ever going to experience,” Lusk said of her first time outside the U.S. “Going there helped me not only love the people we met along the way, but the things about everyday life. It was the best two weeks of my life.”
Blair McElroy, UM interim senior international officer and director of study abroad, said studying in another country allows students to gain unique perspectives and lasting memories.
“While a study abroad opportunity gives students the ability to take classes toward their majors, it also provides opportunities for thinking critically about different cultures, values, people and backgrounds, including one’s own,” she said. “Students grow more tolerant, empathetic and independent as a result of experiencing another culture firsthand.”
Study Abroad at the university offers two-week, four-week, eight-week, semesterlong and yearlong opportunities for students of all majors in a choice of nearly 100 countries. Many programs are the same cost as tuition on the Ole Miss campus. Financial aid and scholarships are also available to students.
“Now that I’m back in the U.S. and I have that experience to take with me, it’s something that I’ll never forget,” Myers said. “I learned a lot of life lessons. I learned independence. I learned communication skills. I gained friendships. So I would say wherever you go, it doesn’t have to be Cuba, it can be wherever you want to go and you can study whatever you want to, but get out of your comfort zone. Don’t be afraid. I’m so blessed and so thankful that I went. Don’t leave this earth without having explored it.”
For more information about Ole Miss study abroad opportunities, visit studyabroad.olemiss.edu.