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Riding the buses » Cuba, Memorable moments, Volunteer abroad » Being a foreign student at the University of Havana

Being a foreign student at the University of Havana

Patricia LaSalle spent a semester at the University of Havana, Cuba as part of her international development degree. She was there for 3 ½ months, sharing a room with Kristin, another student in the program.

Cuba has so much history but it seems as if everything has paused. There are many educated people in the country who are doing things they never would do if they had opportunities. Even with a ration system, they have to be very resourceful to survive.

No one questions or challenges the system, even at the university. I think the young people who never experienced the Revolution want so much more whereas the older generation is afraid to talk.

There are situations that we would find surprising, such as when I briefly stayed with a girl and her parents in their historical home. The parents were divorced but had to live together because they were unable to sell or buy property so had nowhere else to live. Instead, they split up the house.

Or when my roommate Kristin travelled to the countryside and was served  beef for dinner, which is forbidden, and the person responsible for the trip was so upset because she didn’t know how to tell Kristin that she had eaten beef instead of pork.

What was most difficult was the constant harassment of local men—the catcalls and unwanted touching. We had to keep our guard up all the time and that is hard after a while. We couldn’t even run along the Malecon in the morning without being harassed. I didn’t like that feeling at all.

We did meet some incredible Cubans. One was the woman we stayed with. Her name is Nelsa and she had this one-bedroom apartment just across from the university. Kristin and I each had a bed in the one bedroom and Nelsa slept behind a blue curtain in the kitchen. We each paid $10/day for accommodation, breakfast and dinner. Nelsa was amazing and took care of us, even when we were very sick. We totally trusted her.

We escaped a couple of times by going to a resort for a day or two. In the end, though, I was starting to feel more comfortable with Cuban culture. I remember staying in Pinar del Rio in accommodation arranged by the university and spending the night with my host and her boyfriend playing dominos and drinking rum. Just a touch of Orange Fanta was added to the rum to give it colour.  I haven’t had rum or played dominoes since then, but I clearly remember that evening as being one of the most memorable moments of my stay.

I have not been back to Cuba but would like to do that—not just to touristy resorts but to the real Cuba as well.

This interview had been edited and condensed. 

Slideshow photo credit: gildemax

©  Riding the buses 2012

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11 Responses to "Being a foreign student at the University of Havana"

  1. Gaeun says:

    I am a international student currently studying outside of cube in an american school. I do know how to speak both english and spanish fluently (more english that spanish). What are the requirements (tests, trascript) needed for admission? The college website does not seem to show any of the basic requirements.

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Hi Gaeun. Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada has had a semester exchange program with the University of Cuba for some time and these students went to Cuba through this program.

  2. santiago sanchez says:

    quisiera saber que debo hacer para quemi hija que habla espanol perfecto, y studio 4 years de medicina en toronto, y que no tiene muchos recursos ahora , puede estudiar en Cuba, que la admira mucho.

    1. Sylvia Fanjoy says:

      Thanks for the question Santiago.
      I asked my daughter Jessica, who also went to the University of Havana, to respond. For those who don’t speak Spanish, Jessica tells me Santiago is asking if his daughter, who speaks Spanish fluently and studied medicine for 4 years in Toronto, can study in Cuba.

      Jessica’s response is: Su hija tendría que contactar la Universidad de La Habana directamente. Aquí está su página web:

      (and the translation of that is “Your daughter would have to contact the University of Havana directly. Here is their website:“)

      – Sylvia Fanjoy

  3. Nawras ALSMAN says:

    Estimado,a Señor / Señora,

    Estoy Nawras ALSMAN. Yo soy sirio. Mi fecha de nacimiento es 01/02/1990. Tengo mi certificado de finalización de estudios secondarios – sección literaria en 2009. Desde ese momento yo estaba estudiando en Economía y Comercio en la Universidad de Siria, pero debido al deterioro de la situación política en Siria, tuve que dejar mis estudios. En la actualidad, me gustaría continuar mis estudios universitarios en Lic. en comunicación social, pero primero me gustaría hacer un curso de español durante unos meses (desde el 15 de febrero de 2013 si es posible) que me prepare para estudios universitarios.
    Quieres que me asesore sobre las posibilidades de seguir mis estudios en la universidad. Yo sería, por supuesto, feliz de proporcionarle toda la información y documentos necesarios para este fin.
    En espera de una pronta respuesta de su parte.
    Le ruego acepte, mi resectueux sentimientos.

    Nawras ALSMAN

    1. admin says:

      Gracias por su comentario. Tiene que contactar la universidad directamente.

  4. Andrei says:

    I plan to take a spinsh language course at the University of Havana, and I cannot find adequate infos about accommodation. The hotels are too expansive and the casas particulares(dont remember the exact name) seem also too expansive for a long stay period….. any infos about university or other cheap accommodation????

  5. Andrei says:

    Hey, did the university arrange the accommodation for you? How was the housing and what kind of accommodation did you have? how much did you pay monthly?

    1. admin says:

      We stayed in a ‘casa particular’ which is basically a room that you rent in a Cuban person’s house. They are very affordable and it’s also a good way to practice your Spanish and get to know locals. If you are staying for a few months you should be able to negotiate a good deal that includes meals (if you want). You will find many casas particulares around the university – they will have a sign outside of their house that looks like two blue triangles on a white background. We got a list from the university of casas that they recommended. We stayed in a hostel type place for the first two weeks while we found a casa particular that we liked and stayed there for the rest of the time.

      One thing I would suggest is to be aware of ‘jineteros’. They are people who will befriend you on the street. Generally they are very friendly and can be helpful, but their primary goal is to make money – and you may not even realize it. If someone on the streets offers to help you find a casa particular, the casa will end up paying them a ‘finders fee’ which means you will be paying more than you would have if you found the place yourself. Just something to look out for!

  6. Julia says:

    Hi, did you have to know spanish to attend the university pls? 🙂

    1. admin says:

      Nope! I knew some Spanish before I went, but I met foreigners while I was there who didn’t know any Spanish before they went and were taking beginner Spanish classes at the university.

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