April 27, 2020
By Laura N. Vandenberg
Many UMass students were disappointed to have their study abroad experiences cut short this semester, after the spread of Covid-19 required students to return home in March. Sixteen Public Health students participating in the UMass Study Abroad program in Havana, Cuba found their twelve-week program cut in half. But this did not stop the students from making generous and kind gestures as they departed.
Personal care products, including soap, are currently limited in Cuba. This poses problems during normal times, but it could compound the public health challenges the country faces with the coronavirus pandemic.
UMass students chose to leave behind hundreds of dollars’ worth of personal care products including approximately 10lbs of toilet paper and facial tissue, three grocery bags of feminine hygiene products, ten bottles of insect repellent, fifteen bottles of sun protection products, and dozens of bottles of soap, shampoo, conditioner, and lotion. Many students also left “luxury” items including umbrellas, clothing, cosmetics, batteries, and flashlights.
These items will be distributed to the many workers that helped care for the students in their homestay including residential and dining staff. “I left behind shampoo, conditioner, clothing... It didn't seem fair to keep it. These women work so hard for us, it was a privilege to know we were making their lives a little bit easier,” said Gwen Moriarty '21.
An important aspect of the Public Health Study Abroad program in Cuba is the opportunity for students to work in an underserved community. Each student completes a practicum experience at Proyecto Akokán, a community development project in Los Pocitos that is focused on creating and offering educational workshops for children and adults. More than 4000 people in Los Pocitos are challenged by unsanitary living conditions.
As the UMass students departed Havana, they also left donations to be used in Akokán. “I gave stickers, paper, and bandaids,” said Kate Wallace '21. “As it was disappointing that we would not have more time working in the community, I was really thankful for the opportunity to donate to them.” Students gave the Los Pocitos community dozens of spiralbound notebooks, drawing paper and sketch pads, markers, colored pencils, scissors, tape, and other crafting supplies.
“Our public health students continue to impress me,” said Gloria DiFulvio, Undergraduate Program Director for Public Health Sciences. “Adapting to a new environment by traveling to Cuba can be challenging. I spent a week with these students and know how excited they were to be learning and volunteering in Cuba. Having to return early from this experience was certainly a disappointment. But I am grateful for the generosity of our students who were so willing to give back to the Akokán community and their residence staff.”
Like other UMass undergraduates, the students participating in the study abroad program are now shifting to remote learning. They will complete their classes in the remaining weeks of the semester.