When St. Joseph’s sophomore Mary Steinbrecher registered for freshman classes last fall, she never imagined she’d be joining a band onstage in Havana, Cuba, by summer.
“Somehow, we got front-row seating, and I got called up,” the Spanish education major said. “As terrifying as it was, I will forever have a funny story to tell!”
For a week in July, led by Cuban-born SJC professor María Isabel Alfonso, Ph.D., and Department of Modern Languages chair Antoinette Hertel, Ph.D., Steinbrecher and 10 other SJC students explored the culture and history of Cuba.
It was SJC’s second study abroad trip to the Latin American nation — a seven-day excursion that included sightseeing, attending a conference on U.S./Cuba relations and, of course, salsa lessons. (St. Joseph’s first venture to Cuba was in 2004 led by Dr. Hertel and professor Rick Miller of the art department.)
“From the moment you wake up, there is live music playing everywhere,” said junior Molly Lutz, also studying Spanish education at SJC. “It creates such a happy atmosphere everywhere you go — it really made the trip for me.”
“Cuba is one of those once-in-a-lifetime trips,” Steinbrecher agreed. “The biggest surprise to me was the Cuban people’s kindness toward Americans. Because of the complex relations between our two countries, I didn’t know what to expect.”
In 2015, America and Cuba reestablished diplomatic relations, which had been severed in 1961 during the Cold War. SJC faculty jumped at the chance to explore Cuba, working quickly to build a memorable study abroad opportunity.
“People asked ‘Is that safe?'” Lutz said of friends and family’s concerns over her travelling to Cuba. “I felt incredibly safe, not needing to take any extra precautions. I would go back in a heartbeat.”
Some of the highlights for Lutz and Steinbrecher included a walking tour of Havana (and its famous five plazas), and of course, the music. But it wasn’t their first time traveling to Latin America with the College. Both were part of a group of 22 students who visited Nicaragua through a service learning trip last January.
As fledgling Spanish teachers and young global travelers, Lutz and Steinbrecher already know the value of a first-hand cultural experience.
“No matter what you learn from books, experiencing a culture is so much different than anyone could ever describe,” Steinbrecher said. “Someone once told me ‘ordinary experiences produce ordinary stories.’ I want to have extraordinary experiences and amazing stories to tell.”
“Everyone should study abroad at least once in their life, and St. Joe’s makes it so easy. If you’re hesitant, don’t be — sometimes we need to push out of our comfort zone to have some of the most amazing experiences of our lives!” — Mary Steinbrecher
“SJC offers so many global studies opportunities that fit into every student’s core requirements! I so wish I had gotten interested in faculty led programs earlier in my college career. It’s possible to make it work no matter your major, busy schedule or financial situation.” — Molly Lutz