Sasha’s Postcard from Cuba

Sasha Gilles-Lekakis was the University’s first student to undertake a semester of study at the University of Havana, Cuba through the CASA Program in Semester 1, 2020. He went on to participate in the CASA virtual internship in January 2021, interning with the Department of Housing in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Having graduated from his Bachelor of Arts (majoring in Spanish and History) at the end of 2020, Sasha is currently completing an Honours year focusing on Spanish and Latin American studies.

Why did you choose the institution and location of your overseas program?

I’d already travelled to Cuba a couple of times on holidays and I was fascinated by the place. Things are done quite differently there, it’s a socialist country unlike most other countries in the world. I found it to be a very revealing experience and very inspiring in many ways.

I’d heard about how good the Cuban education system is, so getting to study at the University of Havana, which is Cuba’s number one university, seemed like a really good opportunity.

What actions did you take to make sure you maximised the opportunities your overseas program offered you?

The team that ran the CASA Cuba Program were top notch. They were incredibly well organised, right from when we arrived in Miami for the Orientation Program, right up until we unfortunately had to leave early due to the Coronavirus pandemic. They had organised a range of optional extra-curricular activities and I took part in all of them. This included things like visits to Cuba’s National Museum and the Havana International Book Fair. We even went out of the capital for a few days to visit the countryside and see other parts of the island.

The CASA Program were also really accommodating with particular interests. I was really interested in looking at Cuba’s relationship with Europe and with Russia. It turned out that the CASA Director specialised in this area and he was able to organise a few meetings so I could chat with relevant people. I ended up doing some of my assessments focused on this area.

What was your biggest culture shock moment?

I wouldn’t say that the culture shock is anything too confronting, it’s just a matter of getting used to a different pace of doing things.

Regarding the academics, things can change quite quickly. When we were doing our two weeks of ‘shopping’ which is where you try out classes before enrolling, sometimes the university would announce with less than a day’s notice that a class had been cancelled. You would have to rework your timetable to find something else. Provided that you relax and have faith that things will work out, it’s normally fine.

Waiting is another thing. Going into supermarkets, sometimes you would have to wait in a line for a while. However, it’s just a matter of looking for opportunities wherever they are. The waiting just gave me the opportunity to talk to different people.

How did the experience impact your Spanish language skills?

I’d already studied two years of Spanish but the experience was the single best thing I did to improve by living there and speaking it all the time. We stayed in a homestay and none of the family spoke English, so everyday you spoke Spanish. It was total immersion.

What was the highlight of your overseas program?

I took a class on Cuban public health, which is something that Cuba is very well known for. We had a professor called Enrique Beldarraín Chaple, who is very well known in Cuba and Latin America as a disease and epidemiology expert. The highlight of that class was that we got to visit healthcare institutions in Cuba. We got to visit the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM), a hospital, a maternity ward, a mental health clinic and an aged care home and got to speak with both the employees and the patients there. That was an absolute privilege to be able to go and see those places and their inner workings. It’s an incredible health care system and there’s a lot to learn from it.

What is the one piece of advice you wish you had known before you went on your overseas program?

For me particularly, I was pretty nervous about going and living in another country for a long period of time. For students in the same boat, I would say that you’re going to forget all about it. I forgot all about it once I got off the plane and had an absolute blast. If you get the chance to do an exchange program, absolutely take it.

Can you tell me more about your virtual internship experience? 

The internship program is also run by CASA and due to COVID-19, the program was offered virtually and for free.

My internship placement was at the Department of Housing in Buenos Aires. It was a really great, close knit team. As a public institution it exists to help people, so my team were really passionate about their work. They all came from really different backgrounds, some from architecture, some from health and our mentor had studied sociology. The really good thing about doing it online was that it was a really flexible and adaptable program. Coordinating the different time zones was quite difficult, but they were really understanding and we worked through it.

In terms of activities, we had interviews with leading architects who were involved in some of the programs in the city. We were also involved in translating some documents from Spanish to English for the Department of Housing. That was a great opportunity to practise our Spanish. We also held a virtual presentation about aspects of Chile and Argentina including art, history and social movements. It was a really holistic experience.

What’s the most important lesson you can take away from your internship through CASA?

You never know when your degree will come in handy. I studied history and Spanish, so I wondered at first if I would know enough to be able to work at the Department of Housing. Once you get started though, you realise how interconnected everything is and how I could contribute with my own knowledge. For example, none of those working at the department had studied history, so they were really interested to see my final project about the history of housing and slum development in the city.

What next for you?

For me, some sort of teaching has always been on the cards. It was actually experiences like these that make me want to try my hand in the academic field. That’s why I’ve decided to pursue Honours, which will hopefully lead me down a further line of academic work.