MARQUETTE-It took Natasha Gallagher one day to decide to study in Cuba.
During the last week of November, Tim Compton, head of the modern languages and literatures department at Northern Michigan University, entered a class Gallagher was in and outlined a new university offering. He was looking for two students to spearhead a Cuban exchange program and to live and learn in Matanzas, a city of about 170,000.
But there was a catch. Any interested students would have to commit to a semester in Cuba within about two weeks and must be prepared to leave by mid-January.
Northern Michigan University students Michael Wiese-Gomez, a senior Spanish major from Marquette, and Natasha Gallagher, a junior history major from Midland, are seen in a recent photo. The pair are studying in Cuba. (NMU photo)
When Compton walked out, the class was speechless.
"It kind of came out of nowhere," said Gallagher, a junior history major who said she couldn't get the idea out of her head. She went and talked to Compton that afternoon.
"The next day, I told told my parents I was going to Cuba."
Gallagher is currently studying at Cuba's University of Matanzas along with Michael Wiese-Gomez, another NMU student who was given the same short notice.
Wiese-Gomez's mother is half Dominican and half Cuban and much of his family left Cuba in the 1960s, shortly after the Cuban Revolution. Many of his relatives, he said, told him how awful Cuba would be.
"I was a bit nervous," he said. "I'd been conditioned to think of Cuba as an evil place."
Still, a trip to Cuba had always been a dream of his and he said the experience has been anything but terrible.
A few weeks ago, when Wiese-Gomez celebrated his birthday, his Cuban counterparts celebrated with him. Fellow students prepared food for his birthday and a professor brought him a cake.
"That's never happened to me in my life in the United States," he said.
The Cuba program has been a long time coming for NMU, according to Marcelo Siles, the university's executive director of international programs.
After first making contact with Cuban officials, the university obtained a license from the U.S. government, allowing the establishment of the program. Further licensing was needed on the Cuban side and then agreements had to be negotiated.
From start to finish, the planning stages took about a year and by the time the details of the program were actually ironed out, the U.S. license had to be renewed.
Still, Siles said it was worth it.
"Cuba is a living laboratory for the social sciences. It is one of the few countries that still sustains the socialist and communist agenda," he said. "There are very rapid changes happening in that country. (The students) will be living those changes."
Siles said Gallagher and Wiese-Gomez represent the beginning of something larger. NMU is working on a separate agreement with the University of Havana and the hope moving forward is that each year, 40 to 50 NMU students will spend a semester studying in Cuba.
"We said very clearly in the agreements that our students should take classes with Cuban and other international students," Siles said. "Plus, they should be met with the same requirements that the university has for Cuban students."
Wiese-Gomez, who broke his lease in Marquette to make the trip, said it has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In the weeks leading up to his trip, he had heard rumors about NMU sending students to Cuba.
"I had it in my mind that I was going as soon as I got the green light," he said.
He and Gallagher have been in Matanzas since January and both said their favorite part of Cuba has been the hospitality.
Gallagher, who left Marquette at a moment's notice just weeks ago, said she would advise people to give Cuba a chance.
"Definitely. There are things I would recommend people to bring and read before they come, but I would send anyone."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. His e-mail address is email@example.com.