As Stetson University puts an emphasis on study abroad, a classroom to the south continues to emerge.
Bill Andrews considers Cuba a whiteboard for learning.
Andrews, chair of the International Business department in the School of Business Administration at Stetson University, first visited Cuba with students in 2002. Two years earlier, the U.S. House of Representatives had approved the sale of food and medicine to Cuba.
Andrews took a second trip to Cuba with students in 2003, just before U.S. Under Secretary of State John Bolton accused Cuba of trying to develop biological weapons, adding the country to Washington’s list of “axis of evil” countries. For the next seven years, academic permits for travel to Cuba were suspended.
“You could hardly find a single American down there in 2003. Frankly, it was absolutely fascinating and wonderful … like going back in time 40 years,” Andrews remembers about the trip.
His most recent visit brought a much different Cuba into focus. “By the time I went back in 2012, things were beginning to thaw,” he says. “There were more American tourists there. … You could see [Cuba] losing its nostalgic ambiance, but social progress was also afoot. Fidel Castro’s influence was diminished, buildings were being rehabilitated, the economy that had been locked for the last 50 years was beginning to stir.”
Through the years, Cuba has endured uneven times, for certain. Much of the world has, too. Regardless of changes abroad, and actually because of them, Andrews relishes the chance to travel with students. In addition to Cuba, he also led student trips to Spain and Panama.
“If you really want to promote international experience at the university level, you need to build it into the graduation requirements,” he says about global study. “Many students are eager to travel overseas, but it needs to move them toward graduation. At Stetson, we are very careful to attach relevant history, culture and geography to our travel courses to ensure that the experience is academically relevant. It’s such a life-changing experience for students who have never done so.
“While geography, customs and biomes can be enchanting, it is the individuals whom you get to know that are most revealing. To me that’s the biggest reward — just seeing how people are different, how they view the world, their perceptions of the United States… What makes them tick.”
As part of earning a degree in international business at Stetson, students are required to complete approved international study or work experience. “You might be surprised that very few programs [outside of Stetson] require an international experience,” notes Andrews, who began integrating international education into the business curriculum in the mid-1990s shortly after his arrival at Stetson.
Across the DeLand campus, Stetson believes in such globalization. During the 2014-15 school year, 244 Stetson students studied abroad, a nearly 13-percent increase from 2012-13. Also, Stetson currently has 157 students on campus from 61 countries, a 65-percent jump since 2011. By comparison, international students at U.S. colleges and universities increased by 8 percent in the 2013-14 academic year, while the number of American students abroad for academic credit from U.S. colleges and universities increased 2 percent, according to the 2014 Open Doors Report on International Educational Exchange, published by the Institute of International Education.
When it comes to global education, those numbers put Stetson ahead of the curve.
Stetson’s interdisciplinary international studies program has historically built on the university’s curriculum, including foreign languages, and also on study abroad. Students in the major have the chance to design individual programs of study that address global issues or perspectives of special interest to them.
A minor in international studies also provides a dimension to almost any discipline of study. Stetson has nearly 30 exchange options with more than 400 different programs.
WORLD: The David and Leighan Rinker International Learning Center coordinates university efforts in “comprehensive internationalization,” with the focus on “campus culture as an intercultural and transnational intellectual community.” (WORLD stands for World Outreach, Research, Learning and Development.) Among the holistic initiatives, for example, is WORLD WISE, involving the WORLD center along with the Office of Academic Affairs, the Division of Campus Life and Student Success, the Office of Diversity and Inter-Cultural Initiatives and the Center for Community Engagement. The goal is to develop cutting-edge programs with high-impact learning using interconnected curricula.
“The positive outcomes for international learning at Stetson University are the result of a targeted strategic plan to expand the number and locations of Study Abroad opportunities, exchange programs, course offerings, the number of international students receiving a Stetson degree and more,” comments Rosalie A. Richards, Ph.D., associate provost for Faculty Development and a professor of chemistry and education. “With these and other important elements, Stetson University is well positioned to shape and deepen our community’s intercultural competencies and global citizenship.”
Cuba, with even greater changes on the horizons, offers a case study.
In January, new Treasury Department and Commerce Department regulations significantly loosened restrictions on U.S. trade and investment in Cuba. The move could have a profound impact on U.S. students visiting there. Education is among the reasons Americans would be permitted to travel to Cuba under a U.S. general license, meaning they don’t need to apply for a separate license.
From a personal perspective, Andrews sees a country that requires an infrastructure overhaul to accommodate the expected influx of new tourists as the two nations warm. “It will take years and years of investment for them to meet the demand,” says Andrews, who prior to academia worked with import/export trading firms and graduated from the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State.
Also, Andrews believes entrepreneurialism already abounds in Cuba. Given the monthly incomes on the island, Cubans have supplemented them by selling a variety of goods through unauthorized channels or by running small enterprises from their homes, he says. Andrews adds that challenges such as a burdensome tax structure, poor access to wholesale goods and lack of business rules serve as impediments to economic growth.
“The people are very entrepreneurial. Whether you have big investment capital for infrastructure projects or you’ve got smaller slices of capital for entrepreneurs, I think there’s just a huge opportunity. … It’s a giant market,” he says.
For Stetson students, the chance to learn in Cuba promises to be enticing. In previous trips, students have met relatives for the first time and have been forced to quickly adapt in a foreign culture. “Just about every time I go overseas, there’s something significant that goes wrong. … One of the things that these international experiences really drive is the ability to think on your feet, to be flexible, to be adaptable. That’s a skill that is increasingly valuable forever, wherever you go,” Andrews cites.
Take notes, he concludes, because Cuba beckons — and there are lessons to be learned.