For University of Central Florida student Alberto Sigarroa, the chance to study abroad in Cuba means the chance to connect with his heritage.

Born to a Cuban mother and father who fled the communist country in 1978 and 1991, respectively, Sigarroa has grown up surrounded by Cuban culture. When he thinks of Christmas Eve, he thinks of big family parties with traditional Cuban pork dinners. When he craves Cuban food, it often is ajiaco, a popular soup with chicken, potatoes, corn and guascas herbs.

His upbringing instilled a desire to see Cuba firsthand ‑ an opportunity he was unsure he ever would get. Through UCF’s first study-abroad programs to Cuba launching next spring, Sigarroa will get his opportunity.

“My parents have said if I have the chance, I should go for it,” said Sigarroa, a senior studying film and Latin American studies. “I’ll be the first of my immediate family to visit Cuba in about 25 years.”

To build upon the improving relations between the United States and Cuba, UCF created its first study-abroad programs in the Caribbean island. Called Cuba: History & Culture and Journey Cuba, the programs are both short-term and now are accepting applications. Students can apply at www.studyabroad.ucf.edu. Here’s more on the programs:

  • Cuba: History & Culture: Hosted by the University of Cienfuegos, students will earn three credit hours and be exposed to Cuban history and culture, diverse social values and the impact of cultural biases. Students also will visit Havana, Cuba’s capital, during the trip May 5-14. Applications are due Jan. 13.
  • Journey Cuba: Students will earn three credit hours as they visit Havana, San Diego de los Baños and Viñales over spring break, March 11-19. Students will learn about U.S. and Cuba’s relations over the past 50 years, plus civic issues in Cuban society such as sustainability and technology. Applications are due Nov. 28.
  • The creation of these programs follows U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro agreeing to work toward normalized relations between the countries. In 1960, the United States enacted a trade embargo that deterred U.S. goods from being exported to Cuba. In December 2014, after more than 50 years, Obama ordered the secretary of state to initiate discussions with Cuba on the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and to re-establish an embassy in Havana, among other actions.

    The embargo did not prohibit educational travel to Cuba in the past, but it was more heavily regulated. Other Florida state universities also are offering or exploring study-abroad opportunities in Cuba.

    “We’ve been able to remedy some of the previous challenges with getting Cuban visas for students,” said Oliver McSurley, assistant director of UCF Abroad. “We’ve been eager to develop and run study-abroad programs for UCF students in Cuba.”

    McSurley participated in a UCF cohort of faculty and staff that traveled to Cuba earlier this year to scout the country for potential academic partnerships, including study-abroad programs. The long-term goal is to establish semester-long, student-exchange programs and research collaborations, McSurley said.

    Educational travel to Cuba also expands a federal initiative to increase the number of U.S. students studying abroad in Western Hemisphere countries. Dubbed “100,000 Strong in the Americas,” the program aims to have 100,000 U.S. students studying in North, Central and South American countries by 2020. It also aims to bring more students to the United States for study-abroad programs.

    Plus, UCF’s Cuba study-abroad programs can give more students the opportunity to travel because its close proximity to Florida and low cost of living make it more affordable. Both Cuba trips are less than $4,000 and include airfare, lodging, transportation in the country, visas, course credit and more.

    “I always wanted to study abroad, but the prices of most of the trips made me push it off,” Sigarroa said.

    Cynthia Young, UCF vice provost for faculty excellence and international affairs and global strategies, added: “Providing our students an international experience is very important, but we realize that not all our students can spend a year abroad or even a semester. So we’ve been looking at shorter trips. Even a brief exposure can be transformative. We are exploring several such opportunities. These inaugural Cuba trips are among the short trips we have organized, and we hope will help our students understand the people and culture of a place so close to Florida.”