I never seriously considered studying abroad in college until I heard about the course in Cuba. Except for what I learned in history classes and saw on the news, I knew next to nothing about Cuba. However, I was definitely not going to miss out on the rare opportunity to visit a country that so few Americans have had the chance to see for themselves.

It is hard to begin describing all things we did, learned, and saw, but I think I can sum up the most important theme for me: expectations are often unmet.

Going into the trip with little knowledge, it was hard to have any real expectations based on hard facts. Instead, my expectations came from an overtly American perspective, one that was deeply personal and highly simplified. I associated Cuba with the words “dictator” and “communism” without really thinking about what that meant.

Visiting Cuba allowed me to discern the people from the institutions, which made all the difference.

My first impression of Cuba was simultaneously everything I expected and everything I didn’t.

Once we finally got to Cuba, after a long, delay-filled day of traveling, we made the half-hour bus ride to our hotel from the airport. I remember sitting in disbelief, unconvinced that a place like this actually existed. There were old, American cars from the 1950s (something I had expected), but there were also modern cars (something I had not expected).

One of the most striking things was the crumbling, dilapidated infrastructure, something I hadn’t considered. I hadn’t even interacted with anyone yet, save for the customs officer and our tour guide, and my expectations were already exceeded beyond anything I could have ever prepared for.

Meeting with the people made me realize that Cuba was more than its socialist label.

People still went about their daily lives there – they had families to take care of and errands to run. They had ideas about how their country should run and both criticized and praised their system.

I was almost ashamed at how I had imagined Cubans to be so different from myself when, really, they weren’t. I had expected these people to be more dissatisfied with their situation and country, but that wasn’t the case.

Instead, Cuba is far more complex than the two-dimensional characters I had imagined its people to be before I had the chance to listen to them and understand that they are more than their government.

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