Students Explore Cuban Business Firsthand in UT Haslam’s Study Abroad Program

A group of first-year students from the Haslam College of Business visited Cuba from January 5 – 12 to study its changing business and economic environment.

March 20, 2024

While less than 500 miles separates Cuba from the U.S., there is a yawning diplomatic chasm between the two countries. The U.S. imposed a full trade embargo on the nation’s communist regime following the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, an embargo that remains to this day. Travel to Cuba was briefly relaxed during the Obama administration, but visits to the island nation are once again highly restricted for American citizens.

Despite the existing travel restraints, 19 first-year students from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, Haslam College of Business visited Cuba from January 5 through January 12 under an educational activities travel exception. Haslam’s International Programs and Study Abroad office arranged the program as part of its annual First Year Experience, marking the first time Haslam students traveled to Cuba since 2019.

Sara M. Easler, Haslam’s associate dean for International Programs and Partnerships, calls Cuba her program’s most complicated destination. She believes it worth the effort.

“Cuba’s evolving social and economic environment — with expanding private entrepreneurial opportunities and foreign direct investment — makes it a unique and interesting laboratory for students studying international business,” Easler says. “Students also have time to interact with citizens on their own and explore Cuban society.”

The group was based in Havana and traveled to Las Terrazas Resort to observe sustainable ecotourism, as well as to Varadero to learn about hotel and Airbnb businesses in the town. Further, the students spoke to business representatives and toured multiple other Havanan businesses, including the eco-friendly, handmade soap company D’Brujas. They also heard lectures and discussions on aspects of Cuba’s economy.

Cultural Expectations, Realities and Insights

Some of the students pose in front of a scenic view in Cuba.

Some of the students pose in front of a scenic view in Cuba.

Two students who participated in this First-Year Experience — Kendall Burch of Nashville and Scotty Brown from Signal Mountain, Tennessee — returned to UT bursting with enthusiasm. Both chose to study abroad in Cuba because they knew this might be the only chance to visit the island. Based on what they knew of the country, they expected to discover a society much different than the one they visited.

Burch, who is majoring in business management, found Cubans to be open and kind, contrasting with her expectations of the nation. She recounts how, when the students were having dinner at Havana restaurants, staff would interact with the students, sharing life stories, taking photos together and even dancing with the students and other patrons.

“It was so cool to see the connections across cultures,” she says. “The love and friendliness of the Cubans is top tier.”

Brown, an economics major, also appreciated the warmth of the people he met, and made note of their few possessions. “They don’t mind that; it’s not a materialistic society,” Brown says. They’re much more focused on family and relationships than pursuit of things, which was refreshing.”

Business Ingenuity Inspiring Personal Goals

In addition to appreciating the Cuban culture, Brown also thought the businesses they visited during the trip were ingenuous, citing D’Brujas as an example; not having the proper equipment for soapmaking, they use crock pots to melt ingredients for soap.

“Because of the embargo, certain goods are unavailable,” Brown explains. “They have to work around that, and they’re pretty creative.”

Burch, too, was impressed by Cubans’ inventiveness and resourcefulness, despite their limited means. Having done missionary work in several countries outside the U.S., Burch is now inspired to explore ways to aid resource-starved countries like Cuba.

“I want to create my own nonprofits to give back to people that are limited in their exports and imports,” she says.

Creating Peer Connections

Students pose in one of the classic motor vehicles for which Cuba is known.

Students pose in one of the classic motor vehicles for which Cuba is known.

Connections made within the student group were significant to Burch and Brown; what struck Burch was how close all the students grew on the trip.

“Something that Cuba really hones in on is being there for everybody — your neighbor is your family,” she says. “I feel like we embodied that. We became our own family there.”

For Brown, studying Cuba in a group enhanced what he learned.

“It made a much better experience to go with other business students, because we were able to discuss what we learned and process those things as a group,” he says.

Seamless Study Abroad Experience

The two first-year business students are appreciative of the Haslam’s International Programs and Study Abroad Office’s efforts in organizing the trip.

“They were absolutely amazing,” Burch says. “Because Dr. Easler’s been to Cuba often, she wants us to experience the same thing. I thought she did a great job.”

Brown adds, “They did a fantastic job planning everything from start to finish. We didn’t have to worry about logistics and travel.”

Brown and Burch encourage other students to consider Haslam’s international study opportunities. Terming her experience educational, fun and immersive, Burch says, “Haslam has a great setup of countries to go to.”

“I think everyone should study abroad,” Brown adds. “I wouldn’t have the same takeaways if we just learned about Cuba here. You have to go somewhere and experience it to understand it. I think that’s what a lot of people are missing.”


Scott McNutt, business writer/publicist,