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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Cuban Resilience on Display for Old Dominion Visitors on Study Abroad Trip

By Brendan O'Hallarn

Cuba survives.

Despite a decades-long trade embargo by the United States, the collapse of its financial parent - the Soviet Union - crushing poverty, natural disasters and state-enabled corruption, a group from Old Dominion University found the Caribbean island a testament to the human spirit during a spring break visit in early March.

"We came away with a deeper appreciation of Cubans' resilience," said Tom Socha, professor of communication and co-leader of a one-of-a-kind study-abroad journey to a country long closed to American visitors.

"These are folks who not only managed to work through revolutions," Socha said. "They are so resilient. They have figured out so many ways to handle things that we just take for granted here."

Like the lack of electricity. Periodic outages are common, even in major centers like Cuba's capital, Havana.

And running water. "My casa particular ran out. They got behind in filling the cistern on the roof that brings water to the home," Socha said. "The people there have a saying, 'A lo Cubano' - it's just Cuba."

Graduate students in the University's Lifespan & Digital Communication program, along with undergraduates in the Departments of Communication & Theatre Arts and Political Science and Geography, made the trip, which was focused on the fusion of communication, agriculture and food in the island nation.

They ended up participating in a veritable "Amazing Race" of Cuba. The 11 students and three faculty advisers rode in 50-year-old cars that are still running through sheer ingenuity. They were challenged to shop at local markets as Cubans do. They saw historic sites dedicated to the revolution.

Above all, the Old Dominion delegation was struck by the radiance and warmth of the Cuban people.

"The openness of Cubans was amazing. Throughout the trip, we focused on how cool it was that we were in dialogue with people that we couldn't have shared experiences with only a few years ago," Socha said.

Cuba is only just opening to U.S. visitors with the gradual lifting of the decades-long trade embargo. The Old Dominion delegation visited through a student sponsorship by the University of Havana.

The students were impressed by the beauty and passion they encountered in Cuba.

"I was not prepared for my memories of Cuba to include all the mesmerizing colors and visions of love so openly expressed," said Tracey Vaughan, a master's student in communication from Ettrick, Virginia. "It was an array of electrifying colors showcased throughout Cuban culture, artwork and architecture."

Paul Socha, a political science and geography student who isTom Socha's son, said the journey was an amazing "time travel" experience.

"Seeing Cuba function in 2017 with equipment and infrastructure from the 1960s really showed me how creative people can be," he said.

Contacts at the University of Havana have invited the Old Dominion delegation to return next spring break. "To me, the potential there is unbelievable," Tom Socha said. "Learning is the best word that comes to mind to describe our visit."

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