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Students make history with Cuba co-​​ops

Madeline Drake, left, and Caroline Bynum will spend the next four months working on co-op at the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation, Cuba's leading environmental research organization. Photo courtesy of the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foundation.

Car­o­line Bynum and Made­line Drake made higher edu­ca­tion his­tory last week, according to North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Jose Buscaglia, becoming the first two stu­dents in the world to do co-​​op in Cuba.

I feel very for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­nity to live and work in a country I never thought I’d be able to explore,” said Bynum, a third-​​year human ser­vices major. Drake, a fourth-​​year inter­na­tional affairs major, agreed, noting, “This is an incred­ible honor, a unique oppor­tu­nity, and a great chance to learn.”

Bynum and Drake will spend the next four months working for the Antonio Núñez Jiménez Foun­da­tion, a non-​​governmental orga­ni­za­tion named in honor of the late Cuban archae­ol­o­gist and geo­g­ra­pher. FANJ is pri­marily ded­i­cated to studying the impacts of cli­mate change on Cuba and pro­moting the environmental-​​​​consciousness of the country’s people, but it also runs a cul­tural ser­vices pro­gram aimed at pre­serving a diverse range of arti­facts and spreading the work of renowned Cuban intellectuals.

Bynum and Drake have begun working on a cul­tural preser­va­tion project in cel­e­bra­tion of the 30-​​year anniver­sary of Jimenez’ famous canoeing expe­di­tion through 20 Latin Amer­ican and Caribbean coun­tries. The young global cit­i­zens will work to dig­i­tize and cat­a­logue arti­facts that he and his crew of 300 researchers col­lected on their year­long journey, a 10,000-mile voyage that ended in 1988 in San Sal­vador, Bahamas.

Our goal is to pre­serve Cuba’s unique cul­ture, even as more and more Amer­i­cans are being per­mitted to enter the country,” said Drake, who, like Bynum, received a Pres­i­den­tial Global Schol­ar­ship to par­tic­i­pate in this expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity. “Hope­fully, our work will align with the foundation’s mis­sion to pro­mote sus­tain­able development.”

The part­ner­ship

More than two years ago, then Pres­i­dent Barack Obama announced plans to “nor­malize rela­tions” between the U.S. and Cuban gov­ern­ments, effec­tively lifting a half-​​​​century trade embargo that the U.S. imposed on the island nation in 1963.

It was this move to restore diplo­matic rela­tions between the two coun­tries that paved the way for North­eastern to form aca­d­emic part­ner­ships with two Cuban insti­tu­tions— FANJ and the Uni­ver­sity of Havana.

Under the mem­o­randum of under­standing signed with North­eastern in the spring of 2016, FANJ agreed to accept co-​​op stu­dents and work with uni­ver­sity fac­ulty to estab­lish joint marine sci­ence, envi­ron­mental sus­tain­ability, and social science-​​related research projects. In a second agree­ment signed with the Uni­ver­sity of Havana, North­eastern stu­dents will begin an Expe­ri­en­tial Year Abroad pro­gram in Sep­tember 2017, spending the first semester studying in Havana and the second on co-​​ops at Cuban news­pa­pers, mag­a­zines, and gov­ern­ment agencies.

We are not going there to dis­cover Cuba,” said Buscaglia, a Caribbean scholar and chair of Northeastern’s Depart­ment of Cul­tures, Soci­eties and Global Studies who co-​​led the university’s Cuba del­e­ga­tion. “We are going to work with the people who have been there for­ever and are con­cerned about pre­serving their environment.”

A global perspective

As scholars with a pas­sion for exploring the world and effecting pos­i­tive change, Bynum and Drake are the per­fect fit for FANJ.

I feel very for­tu­nate to have the oppor­tu­nity to live and work in a country I never thought I’d be able to explore.

Caroline Bynum SSH'21

Bynum grew up on a farm out­side of Durham, North Car­olina, and spent a year of her child­hood living in Mexico, where she dis­cov­ered her pas­sion for the Spanish language.

She said her co-​​op at Beyond Con­flict, a peace building non­profit based in Boston, instilled in her an appre­ci­a­tion of chal­lenges facing those who are working to foster polit­ical change. And she noted that her Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram in Ger­many, which focused on geno­cide and the Holo­caust, pre­pared her to con­front any number of heavy issues in a thoughtful and com­pas­sionate manner. It’s a soft skill that’s likely to come in handy in Cuba, as she nav­i­gates thorny topics like envi­ron­mental respon­si­bility and social engagement.

It’s very impor­tant to listen, to be obser­vant, and to refrain from jumping to any con­clu­sions when you expe­ri­ence a new cul­ture for the first time,” said Bynum, whose North­eastern courses in Latin Amer­ican film helped to hone her interest in the region. “I’m looking for­ward to building rela­tion­ships with people and immersing myself in the Cuban culture.”

She envi­sions the Cuba co-​​op as a stepping-​​stone along a path toward a career in social jus­tice. “I don’t know exactly what I want to do,” she said, “but I do know that I want to help other people solve com­pli­cated problems.”

Drake recently com­pleted a co-​​op as a pro­gram director for Manna Project Inter­na­tional, a com­mu­nity building non­profit based in Nicaragua. There she oversaw ini­tia­tives ranging from a women’s empow­er­ment pro­gram to a health class for girls, respon­si­bil­i­ties that often afforded her the oppor­tu­nity to build strong rela­tion­ships with local com­mu­nity members.

My goal was to get to know people who were nothing like me,” said Drake, who’s also taught Spanish lan­guage classes to first-​​graders in Mexico City and studied Spanish cul­ture on a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram. “It pushed me out of my com­fort zone, which will help me in Cuba as I immerse myself in their traditions.”

She fore­sees her­self as a For­eign Ser­vice officer, a career diplomat living abroad. “Hope­fully this co-​​op will accustom me to living in new places and inter­acting with dif­ferent people,” she said. “I’m excited and looking for­ward to keeping an open mind.”