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Irma hits Cuba, putting rain cloud over students’ study abroad plans

(Joaquin Hernandez/Xinhua/Sipa USA/TNS)

Translated Article en Español

University of Massachusetts senior public health sciences major Leo Wackler had spent Wednesday, Sept. 8, packing his bags and exchanging currencies in preparation for his fall semester in Cuba, when, at 11:02 p.m., he got an email that took the wind out of his sails. Hurricane Irma had marred his plans to study abroad.

Citing concerns over student and staff safety and unstable ground conditions due to flooding and damaged housing, Stacy Lutsch, director of academic initiatives for the UMass International Programs Office (IPO), emailed Wackler and 12 other students, that the ‘UMass: Cuba: Public Health in Cuba – Fall Semester’ program would be suspended.

IPO’s decision to suspend the program came after conversations with the educational travel company International Study Abroad (ISA), IPO’s UMass international risk management team and faculty leaders. According to the email, IPO had been following a variety of sources, including news coming out of Havana and from the United States government. IPO also noted it is challenging to assess when Cuba will be up and running with all services completely restored—services include electricity, gas and running water.

“Unfortunately, it does look like a long road of recovery ahead,” Lutsch wrote.

So instead of flying himself and his belongings down to the Caribbean island, Wackler, a Washington, D.C. resident, drove himself and his bags up to New England to complete his fall semester on the flagship campus.

“We basically just turned around and took all the stuff I had packed for Cuba…and came up [to UMass] on Sunday,” said Wackler, who had originally intended to fly abroad on Friday, Sept. 10, two days after the trip was cancelled.

“I’m still trying to settle in here,” he said.

Wackler added that he is still lacking a meal plan but has on-campus housing and most of his classes in order. The silver lining of all of this, he noted, is how understanding the public health department has been in accommodating his academic needs.

However, he was upset over the Cuba program’s suspension.

“We had six months to build up for it,” Wackler said. “I had been looking forward to it a lot.”

Most of all, Wackler was excited to see Cuba’s Viñales Valley, a unique geological formation encircled by mountains. Wackler backpacks and hikes often and was excited to see the cliffs at this destination.

Junior public health major Julia Taylor also intended on studying abroad in Cuba. She was most excited about the possibility of visiting Havana and experiencing the culture there. However, when she found out that the program was going to be suspended she was stressed and disappointed.

“My head was spinning. I didn’t know what I should be doing,” she said.

Wackler and Taylor both first learned about the Cuba program after Lutsch came to their classes and sold them on it. Wackler learned that if more people went on the trip, it would be cheaper for the entire group of students to go. This factor, along with the fact that his courses in Cuba would count towards a major requirement, convinced him to apply. In early May, after registering for classes on campus, he was accepted.

“Once I got my acceptance letter, I just sort of dropped all the classes I had registered into,” Wackler said. “I didn’t need them anymore because I was going to Cuba.”

In IPO’s email to the students in the program, the office stated, “Rest assured that we have informed senior leadership at UMass Amherst of this decision and there will be support for you to continue your semester back at UMass.”

They offered assistance to students with contacts to reach out to coordinate housing and classes.

According to a statement from the University, through IPO’s strong partnerships with other programs, six of the 13 students originally planning to study in Cuba secured places on other programs this semester in Costa Rica and Spain.

Taylor was one of those six students, as she was given the option of studying abroad in either San José, Costa Rica or Salamanca, Spain. She chose San José.

Jackson Cote can be reached at and followed on Twitter @jackson_k_cote.

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