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By Amanda Groulx

When most people think about spending a month in Cuba, they think about beaches, palm trees and living it up at a five-star resort.

But a month in Cuba won’t be a vacation for 16 students who are taking CINT 912 this May. Community Development: International Field Experience is an interdisciplinary course open to students from most faculties.

For this credit, students spend a month in Cuba working with local students and experts to learn about the day-to-day workings and needs of a small Cuban community. At the end of the month in the community, the students present a proposal for the development in one area. This year, that area will be housing. The proposal will be kept at the community centre, so that the students’ suggestions will be considered in the community’s planning.

Lawrence Altrows, professor of urban and regional planning at Ryerson, created this program about 10 years ago, at which point it involved travelling to Jamaica.

Since then, four trips have been made to Cuba. “CINT 912 is very important because it’s really great training for people who will do intercultural work, whether it’s overseas or here in Canada,” Altrows said. “We want students to get the academic portion of the course, but also the life experience it offers.”

This is what inspired Joanne Fisher to not only take the course when it was offered in 1999, but to become its current field co-ordinator. “When I went for the first time, I was drawn by it,” she said. “For me to be involved with it now is quite the experience.” Michelle Riutort took the course in the summer of 2004. “The opportunity to interact intimately with Cuban people was one I could never have gotten in a lecture,” she said. “Many of us in the group still have relationships with people we met there.”

She says it was a life-changing experience. “The Cuban culture is more about people and relationships, while here is about things. It makes you look at your lifestyle, priorities and values,” she said. “No matter what happens, you’re going to learn something. Either about yourself, about working with others, or about different beliefs… It’s something you can’t buy.”

Altrows recently handed over control of the course to another professor, but plans to go back as a volunteer. Recruiting for this course usually occurs within Ryerson’s Faculty of Community Service, though, as it is interdisciplinary, students from other faculties and even other universities can take it as an elective.

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