By TAYLOR HARTZ
Coinciding with President Barack Obama’s historic visit to the island nation, students from Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) spent a week studying in Cuba this semester.
From March 18-26, CCSU sent 19 journalism and communications majors along with two professors on a voyage from New Britain, to Boston, to Miami, and finally to Havana.
Tyler Roaix, a 2013 graduate of Southington High School, was among the students offered the chance to take the unique trip, the first of its kind at CCSU.
“The first-hand experience is more important than anything you can get in a textbook,” said Roaix, who described the trip as unforgettable and a great educational experience. “The idea of going to a place that has been essentially unexplored by the American people for the past five decades was very exciting,” he said.
The opportunity to visit the communist-run country is not something all Americans are granted. American tourism in Cuba is prohibited, with the exception of 12 strict categories of visit, according to the website for the Embassy of the United States in Havana, Cuba. The exceptions include family visits, official government business, educational trips, and journalistic activity, among others.
The CCSU trip came shortly after President Obama announced eased restrictions on travel to Cuba, allowing individuals to travel to the island for educational tours.
As part of a new course titled “Reporting Transition in Cuba,” the university planned for students to travel to Cuba through the use of student visas. What they didn’t plan for was sharing the island with the Obamas and the Rolling Stones.
“I’m proud that I got to go when I did,” said Roaix.
While the celebrity visits initially disrupted their itinerary, the students were quick to take to social media to plea with staffers traveling with Obama, hoping for access to the historic events. The students were forced to stay outside of Havana and commute into the city each day for their planned assignments due to increased security for Obama, but Roaix said a presidential sighting ended up being one of his biggest stories.
After sending desperate tweets to local legislators and the Obama administration, students received a special invitation from the White House to attend the same baseball game as the Obamas at the Estadio Latinoamericano in Havana.
Roaix is now working to piece together a video project on the historic stadium, an exciting baseball game, and his first coverage of the first family. With plans to create a multimedia project about the Cuba national baseball team, lifelong baseball fan Roaix said he was thrilled the presidential visit coincided with his story, and that they were able to gain access to the game.
The stadium, which seats 55,000, was standing room only when the Cuba national team played the Tampa Bay Rays. Roaix, who said he has attended hundreds of baseball games and toured several stadiums in the states, said the game in Havana “was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.”
“You can feel the pride they have for their team and their country,” he said.
Outside the stadium, their luck continued. The class watched from the audience as the Rolling Stones played a free show in Havana on March 25.
Throughout the week, they explored the island, visiting the areas of Varadero and Cienfeugos, where Roaix said they got a chance to talk to some locals who showed him that Cuba is “a happy country with happy people.”
Working in teams of three, the students divided up as writers, videographers, and photographers to collaborate on stories. They worked on coverage of Cuban fashion, food rationing, local artists, and transportation habits.
On April 21, the students held a panel at CCSU where they discussed their reporting, and their experiences on the island and showed their stories to other students and staff. On May 4, they will release a magazine-style publication to showcase their work from the trip.