In Cuba, education is a right for all

by Antoinette D'Addario, Meetings and Marketing Intern, AACRAO

In February 2018, a select group of AACRAO members participated in a research trip to Cuba, the first AACRAO trip to the island nation. The Cuba Project is the first in a series of projects intended to reinvigorate an international education research tradition that had died out due to a lack of funding. 

The diverse twelve-member delegation, mostly strangers to one another, came from around the country. Despite having different levels of experience and backgrounds, everyone was equally dedicated to the mission and it was wonderful working together, said Aleks Morawski, the Director of Evaluation Services at Foreign Credits Inc., a member of AICE. Additionally, the group brought veterans of the field together with graduate students who were just beginning their careers.

“I was excited to have the opportunity to meet ten AACRAO members I hadn’t met before,” said AACRAO Deputy Director Melanie Gottlieb, who went on the trip. (View photos of the trip on AACRAO's Facebook page!)

“It was wonderful and amazing to see twelve folks from all over, coming together and collaborating so well on critical research topics," agreed Project Lead Robert Watkins, Assistant Director of Admissions Graduate and International Admissions Center at the University of Texas – Austin.

AACRAO's strategic goal: Growing international research

The AACRAO delegation went as part of Búsquedas Investigativas,  a long-standing program currently sponsored by the University of Maryland – College Park and George Washington University. In addition to the AACRAO delegation, 35 graduate students and faculty members  from Higher Education and International Education Masters and PhD programs participated. (Read about the application process.)

“This was an opportunity for AACRAO to engage with these young professionals who have chosen careers in higher education and support them as they begin their careers,” Gottlieb said. “Their individual research topics gave us a richer lens from which to view our own more practical comparative education research efforts.”

The project is part of AACRAO’s strategic initiative to grow international research. In 2012, a task force was appointed to focus on International Admission and Credential Evaluation. Funding for comparative international education research within professional spheres has been scarce for the past 20 years, and the task force advised that AACRAO should find ways to fill this gap. (Read their final report.)  In light of the report, AACRAO earmarked funds for in-depth comparative education research beginning with this budget year. AACRAO's partner association TAICEP also helped fund the project. 

The trip also helps AACRAO EDGE acquire the most accurate and current information.

“The depth and breadth of knowledge shared was invaluable for our work as researchers and credential evaluators,” said Patrick Leahy, International Education and Credential Analyst at Michigan State University.

Education in Cuba: Jobs guaranteed

Cuba’s constitution states that education is a right for all, and the nation has a centralized system which establishes the curriculum for schools around the country, which boasts the highest literacy rate in the world.

“The Cuban education system is highly developed in that education is truly available for every Cuban,” Morawski said.

This system prepares students to be citizens and gives them a clear path from school to work after college. There is a dedication of the Cuban people to teaching as a profession, and teachers are well-trained and highly respected in Cuban culture.

While Cubans do forgo some freedom in choosing their careers, their education leads to employment upon graduation. When students apply to college, they apply through a central government system and must take a variety of tests. As part of their application they must choose their top ten profession choices and they are guaranteed to receive one of them.  The delegation spoke with a number of students who were studying their third or fourth choice profession but they weren’t upset, because they were guaranteed a job upon graduation.

“Education is closely tied to culture,” Gottlieb said. “To truly understand the system,  it was important to step out of the U.S. education context and see things from their perspective.”

In addition to this centralized education, teachers are required to undergo rigorous training. At the university level, professors must be trained in both their discipline as well as pedagogy.

“The number one thing that I noticed as being really helpful, that we might emulate in the United States, is that all teachers are trained in pedagogy and are involved in working with students from the grassroots level,” Garrett Seelinger, Team Lead at NAIA’s  InCred, said.

While the Cuban system is vastly different from the United States, some things remain the same.

“You realize on a trip like this that teachers face some of the same challenges, no matter the country,” said Janine Pacheco, Program Manager at the University of New Mexico. “For example, a high school teacher remarked to us that it is a challenge to keep pace with the students’ ability to use and absorb technology as they are digital natives as opposed to those who are digital immigrants.”

Despite having limited resources, Cuban educators prepare their students for higher education.

“I was impressed with how much they’ve done with so little,” said Martha Van Devender, Senior Evaluator at ECE. “The blockade has cut them off from a lot of resources we take for granted in higher education, but they seem to be preparing these students without these resources.”

Pacheco also commented that the classrooms they visited would benefit from updated science equipment, and teachers voiced their lack of technology as a challenge.  

Van Devender hopes to renew relations between the United States and Cuba, and open educational opportunities between the countries.

“I hope to become an advocate and an ally for the Cuban students,” she said.

Looking ahead

In the coming weeks, team members will be pooling the information they gained on the trip and begin disseminating it in a variety of locations, such as AACRAO EDGE. The team will also be presenting their findings at our Annual Meeting in Orlando, so be sure to stop by the session.

In the coming year the delegates will publish their findings to help others better understand the Cuban education system. Most importantly, the Cuba project represents the beginning of a return, by AACRAO, to international research.

“We’re going to revive it as a means of research but also [for] mentoring new young professionals in the field,” Watkins said.

In regards to Cuba, the work is not yet done. With connections established and more questions to be answered, more information is needed.

“After our project is finished, I hope we can collectively identify gaps in our research that would warrant a return trip to Cuba for further investigation and collaboration,” Leahy said.

The trip was a unique experience for all involved, and allowed AACRAO researchers to better understand the Cuban education system and prepare future research projects in the country.

“It was rewarding, both personally and professionally, to see an education system you read about and hear about, and credentials you see on paper, in person,” Morawski said. “It makes the work more tangible.”

Interested in supporting this kind of research, or have a project you would like to pursue?  Learn about the Gloria Nathanson Fund for Research in International Education.