Eating rice and beans for three meals a day for one week straight was nothing Justin Ferris hopes ever to do again, but he would love to make a return trip to Cuba someday.
Ferris, son of Jodi and Mark Birkmann, Washington, was in Cuba Dec. 6-12 as part of a Travel Study program at Culver-Stockton College, where he’s majoring in legal studies. After he graduates next year, Ferris plans to attend law school and then work as an attorney.
While he may never directly use the knowledge he gained on his stay in Cuba for work, Ferris said the trip was “life-changing.” It’s an experience “that I do not feel I will ever be able to replicate,” he told The Missourian.
Ferris was one of about 20 other students and teachers who made the trip. The main area of study was sociology, although there also were opportunities to study many other areas such as political science, international relations, Cuban music and the Spanish language.
“We chose to study these topics in Cuba because the culture and people of Cuba have lived with a completely different form of government than we do and have been without our American influence for just over 50 years,” said Ferris. “This difference in culture is why we chose Cuba.”
The group spent most of the week in Havana, where Ferris and a few others visited the United States Interests Section, which serves basically the same purpose as a U.S. embassy, Ferris explained, noting they met with the Americans who worked there.
The group also visited the “Instituto Superior de Arte,” which is the national school of the arts, and were able to socialize with a few of its students and teachers, and the Universidad de La Habana.
Outside of Havana, the group visited Vinales Valley, a lush, green valley where many tobacco farmers grow their product.
For Ferris, though, the best part of the trip weren’t the sites, but meeting the Cuban people and learning about their way of life.
“My favorite part was experiencing the socialist nature of the Cuban government, simply talking to Cuban people, watching and asking why,” he said. “It is difficult to explain because the freedoms we enjoy here in the States close our eyes to what life could be like, but people in Cuba have a whole different outlook on life.
“They are entitled to everything and to nothing. They do not have ‘stuff’ — everything they have is a necessity — and they have it not because they earned it, not because they worked for it, not because they bought it, but because it was allotted to them by the Cuban government.
“Being able to study the culture and mentality of the people who live under that kind of government was the best experience on the trip,” said Ferris. “It made me truly realize how blessed I am to live in America.”
While he had studied some about Cuba in preparation for the trip, Ferris said it surprised him how much the everyday Cubans seem to accept Americans.
“When talking about politics, most Cubans would say that the embargo was a problem between the governments, not between the people,” he said. “It seems that they wholeheartedly want American tourists in their country.
“Before we left we had a lot of expectations and assumptions about what Cuba would be like. We thought that the Cuban government would give us trouble at the airport by searching our bags and questioning us as to why we were traveling, but it turns out that we had more trouble coming back in the Houston airport!
“We had read that the people in Cuba do not wear what we would consider ‘street clothes’ in public, which is also not true,” he said.
This trip to Cuba was Ferris’ first abroad, and he hopes it won’t be the last.
“I think it would be very interesting to return to Cuba one day to see how Havana has changed,” he said. “The city is currently undergoing some major renovations and it would be nice to return someday and see the completion of the renovations.”
Ferris graduated from his homeschool program in 2011 and studied for one year at East Central College before enrolling at Culver-Stockton College.