The announcement that the United States will normalize relations with Cuba is good news for students who want to study on the island.
After decades of restrictions and bureaucratic bickering, it will likely become much easier for American students to study abroad in Cuba—and perhaps even more importantly, for Cuban students to pursue an education in the U.S., according to educators and researchers who have closely followed Cuba's relationship with the U.S.
"I do think this will make a difference," said Brian Whalen, president and CEO of the Forum on Education Abroad, which has advocated for the easing of study abroad regulations. "It's still more difficult right now than it needs to be."
It’s been difficult for a while. During the Bush administration in the early 2000s, the U.S. imposed restrictions that forced most American universities operating programs in Cuba to shutter. In 2011, under Obama, the U.S. opened the door for schools to resume study abroad programs in Cuba, but the process still required navigating a web of paperwork and licenses. And third-party study abroad providers like Academic Programs International, which received a license to operate a Cuba program for academic credit only in 2013, were largely left out of the resurgence. About half of the students who go abroad do so through such third-party programs, Whalen said, so the inability of those programs to operate has severely impeded study abroad opportunities in Cuba.
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"It's not like studying in Spain," he said, adding that some organizations have complained about backlogs and roadblocks to starting programs in Cuba. "Bottom line…there's greater demand, but we don't have the supply in place. I have no doubt the normalization of the relationship will help that."
Duke University may consider reestablishing a program it closed in 2004 if there is enough faculty interest. Wednesday's announcement would "certainly make it easier," said Amanda Kelso, executive director of the Global Education Office for Undergraduate Students.
Under the new diplomatic thaw, the Obama administration will expand travel allowances for 12 categories, including educational activities. American credit and debit cards will also work on the island, which will make it easier for the university and students to move money, Kelso said.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment regarding how study abroad might be impacted. A spokeswoman for the State Department, which has been encouraging more student exchanges with Latin American countries in recent months, declined to comment.
For now, the numbers of students exchanged between the U.S. and Cuba is small.
During the 2013-14 school year, just 69 Cuban students studied in the United States, down from 76 students the year before, according to the Institute of International Education, which tracks study abroad figures.
In the 2012-13 school year, the U.S. sent 1,633 students to Cuba. Prior to the Bush administration's restrictions, more than 2,000 students studied in Cuba, a figure that tanked to fewer than 300 following the restrictions.
Peter Hakim, a Cuba expert with the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C., agrees the news is positive for people hoping to study in Cuba.
"I think there will be more exchanges with Cuba," he said, "and there certainly will not be the kind of ridiculousness whereby a professor at Harvard has to prove he's going to Cuba to do research or a student has to prove they're taking courses or fulfilling a degree requirement to go to Cuba."
The benefits stand to be numerous, Whalen said. The changes will allow more students to learn Spanish and gain cultural knowledge about an island that is geographically close but about which many young people know very little. There will be opportunities to study musical traditions and the arts, as well as immigration and politics.
"I have a good friend…who is an expert on community gardening," he said, "and Cuba is apparently quite a leader in that, so there are certain content areas where students stand to benefit in learning in Cuba."
Hannah Levien, a current senior at Marist College in New York, studied in Havana last fall, and said she gained a cultural understanding of Cubans and their take on the embargo.
"There is no animosity against Americans and that's something I wasn't sure of when I went there," she said, adding that she knows many young Cubans who will likely be interested in studying in the U.S.
"All the Cuban students I talked to," she said, "would joke about coming to the U.S., but it wasn't really a joke. They'll be excited with the prospect of maybe coming."
The easing of restrictions could be even more eye-opening for Cuban students, provided the government allows them to travel, Hakim said, a move that could be risky for the island.
"Young people in Cuba really don't have much opportunity," he said. "There's no room for ambition in Cuba. Someone coming out of college with a degree in engineering or math, if you ask what they want to do, most Cuban students will say they want to leave Cuba. How do you avoid a massive exodus?"
Clearly there are still details to be worked out and challenges to overcome.
But "if we work to normalize relations further with Cuba," Hakim said, "it will have a positive impact in terms of opening academic exchange, study abroad programing, faculty exchange, research…there's no question about it."
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.