Fostering International Partnerships: Lessons from Cuba

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This post is part of a monthly series about ASCD’s global engagement efforts. These posts will provide fresh perspectives on how educators engage each student in their classrooms―and engage themselves as professionals―with the wider world.

By Kate Hufnagel

hufnagel-lessons-from-cuba-300x300The thought of traveling to Cuba may evoke widely varying responses based on individual experiences and associations. To some, Cuba might seem like another universe, mysterious and pristinely untouched by many influences of the globalizing world. Or, for individuals who have ancestral or geographical proximity to the country, it might not seem so elusive, and they might instead think that the country is often misrepresented by those who are less familiar with the Cuban experience. Perhaps you have students or peers from Cuba who are more familiar with the life of a Cuban-American than a vivid memory of what the country smells and tastes and sounds like. When I went to Cuba this summer, I felt a bit of each of these sentiments and some butterflies, not entirely sure what to expect. The opportunity to reflect on my biases and expectations was a welcomed reminder of what it feels like to travel for the first time and how my own learnings might be relevant to those just beginning to explore the concept of global engagement through educational institutions.

I (along with my teammates, Maria Beltran, Zach Braun, and Pattie Umali) capitalized on this unfamiliarity to identify key suggestions for establishing new academic partnerships between the United States and Cuba. After reflecting on these experiences and takeaways, it became clear that our suggestions are relevant to any academic partnerships between schools in different countries, not just those between the United States and Cuba. Similarly, although our research was focused at the university level, it can also apply to the elementary and secondary levels. As you begin to identify possible international partnerships, consider these four approaches to help ensure mutual benefit for all involved.

  1. Focus on Partnership Building Rather Than Achievement of Immediate Measurable Outcomes. Trust, patience, compatibility, and cultural understanding are key requirements for building international partnerships. Although political history may exaggerate the Cuban emphasis on the relationship-building approach as compared to the United States’ tendency toward outcome-oriented goals, understanding the difference between these two approaches is essential to ensuring that conditions for learning are maximized. As is the case with many international partnerships, logistical challenges will only serve to highlight that interpersonal connections are the true benefits of partnerships, and such outcomes cannot always be rushed or attached to metrics.
  2. Incorporate Intercultural Approaches into Predeparture Preparation. Before traveling to another country, take time to identify and learn to manage preconceived expectations of that country. How do you expect your partnership to be, and why do you expect that? Prepare by reading resources on the historical and sociological context by authors from that country. Discuss and reflect on how opening your mind to new perspectives can deepen your ability to engage your students to become globally competent citizens.
  3. Consider Innovative Financial and Logistical Partnership Models. More often than not, financial limitations may be the biggest perceived hurdle for pursuing international partnerships. Additionally, in some countries (like Cuba) logistical and legal constraints may also make traditional partnerships inaccessible. Fortunately, there are plenty of examples of innovative partnership models to consider, such as staff exchanges as an alternative to student exchanges, collaborative research or project-based experiences, sharing of accessible resources like intellectual property, or virtual exchange programs, all of which can help partnerships flourish regardless of financial, political, or human capacity.
  4. Showcase the Host Country’s Assets as Benefits of Partnerships. Many international interactions from U.S. players—particularly in the developing world—may be viewed as charitable or one sided, even if unintentionally, but financial prowess is far from the primary characteristic of a valuable academic partner. Countries that may seem financially underdeveloped have much they can teach U.S. educational institutions. For example, the Cuban focus on a balance between work and study, as well an emphasis on lifelong community service, provides a valuable alternate perspective that can reshape how U.S. students receive and express their worldviews. Seeking out and highlighting such examples in your partner country can help ensure that your partnership is truly collaborative and mutually beneficial.

Regardless of lessons and takeaways, there is no such thing as a perfect partnership. The most important thing is to enter into an agreement well-informed of your partner country’s context and consider its perspective when shaping your partnership goals. With the advance of technology and innovation that can be applied to globalizing academic experiences, international partnerships are more accessible and relevant than ever before, even between countries who are just beginning to reopen their borders to one another.

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Kate Hufnagel is the whole child project manager at ASCD.

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