By Terry Rogers
Milford resident Lisa Ingram Peel, who is an Instructional Director in the Education Department/International Education at Delaware Technical Community College Terry Campus, recently traveled to Cuba with other staff members from the college. Peel said that the trip was designed as part of Del Tech’s annual international professional development program for faculty and staff which is offered each year as an experience for students and employees.
“This particular program was designed by Dr. Ileana Smith, Vice President and Campus Director at the Owens Campus in Georgetown,” Peel said. “She is a Cuban-American who escaped with her family as a young girl during the early years of Castro’s communist regime. This was a homecoming of sorts for Dr. Smith, who was passionate about showing her colleagues the real Cuba, beyond what the typical tourist experiences.”
Employees from the four campuses of Del Tech participated in the event. Some of those who travelled to Cuba were award recipients in the Excellence in Teaching program. Those participants received grants to cover the cost of the trip as recognition for their excellence in teaching and learning. Other employees and guests paid for the trip. Peel said that it was a diverse group that included members of the nursing faculty, human resources, the automotive faculty and others. She said that the common thread was an open mind and curiosity about Cuba.
The focus of the program was to provide cross-cultural immersion and to allow professionals to gain insight into a particular field of expertise. The program focused on innovation and entrepreneurship in Cuba’s evolving economy. Pre-departure meetings were held to allow those who travelled to Cuba to gain an understanding of the Cuban culture, from baseball to the country’s history to the arts and people who lived there.
“The itinerary consisted of carefully curated presentations by local professionals, tours of historic landmarks and opportunities for exchanges with Cuban people,” Peel said. “We visited a variety of local businesses such as Nostalgicars, to see how a local garage owner diversified his business model to capitalize on the tourists’ interest in old cars. We spoke to real estate agents learning to navigate the new real estate market. Cubans were only recently permitted by the government to buy and sell their own homes. We visited a bookstore that is independently owned by an American expat journalist, who prides herself on providing access to uncensored reading for the local community. While these specific examples showcase how the program focused on innovation and entrepreneurship, the insight I gained was far more holistic.”
Peel said that she learned two expressions that summarize her experience. The first was that Cuba is “tragically beautiful.” She said that the country has old-world charm and there is some nostalgia invoked from the older model cars used there and a far simpler lifestyle without the Internet. There is a trade-off, however, Peel said.
“The trade-off, of course, is being closed off to the resources of international investment and lacking essentials for everyday life due to the US-Cuban embargo,” Peel explained. “The second expression I took from my trip is that, in many of my conversations with locals, I eventually reached an impasse, where I could not wrap my mind around the Cuban way and Cubans could not fathom the American way. Their reply was “es complicado,” meaning “it’s complicated,” which it was. How do you explain the U.S. housing market crash to a person who lives in a country that doesn’t have the infrastructure to offer mortgages? And if the banks offered mortgages, how could you convince a Cuban that a 30-year mortgage is a sound practice given that he earns the equivalent of $25 U.S. each month.”
According to Peel, the term “es complicado” goes beyond explaining materialism to someone who has never had access to credit that would allow him to live beyond his paycheck. She said there were many complicated discussions surrounding her questions about motivating people who do their best when everyone earns the same pay. Peel said that it was eye-opening and humbling to listen to the advantages and disadvantages of life in a Communist regime.
“I recommend that more American’s visit Cuba,” Peel said. “Do I worry that Cuba is going to change overnight and become Cuba Disney or McCuba? No. I think the culture in Cuba is so rich and the solidarity and passion of its people are unfaltering. I’m hopeful that Cuba will maintain its strong family values, lack of violent crime and appreciation for arts in schools long after the cruise ships dock. I’m also hopeful that Cubans, some of the most educated people I’ve ever encountered, will gain access to the resources, information and investors that allow them to share their innovative thinking with the rest of the world.”
Peel also cautions Americans to go with an open mind instead of an open wallet. She said that Cuba has nightlife, mojitos and fun, but it is not an all-inclusive resort trip. She said that it is critical for Americans to make a good first impression because we only get one chance to do so.