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Door to Cuba opens for students here

ChristinPerez  teacher Dominican University is taking class be one first study abroad Cubunder new travel regulations. They meet Sunday

Christina Perez, a teacher at Dominican University, is taking a class to be one of the first to study abroad in Cuba under new travel regulations. They meet on Sunday, May 1, 2011 in River Forest. | Richard A. Chapman~Sun-Times

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Updated: August 25, 2011 12:29AM

Karen Delgado will board an airplane for the first time in her life Friday and head to a country that most people in the United States aren’t allowed to visit: Cuba.

Delgado is a student at Dominican University in River Forest — the first school in the nation to offer a short-term study abroad program in Cuba since President Obama eased restrictions on educational exchange with the communist nation.

“I still can’t even believe it,” said Delgado, 19, of Waukegan, who will spend three weeks in Cuba with 22 other students.

Although travel to Cuba by U.S. citizens has been banned since the U.S. launched an embargo against Cuba in 1960, there was an exemption for travel by educators and study-abroad groups. But in 2004, former President George W. Bush enacted much stricter travel regulations that required college programs to last at least 10 weeks, and a university with a program there could only enroll its own students.

Short-term programs such as the one at Dominican will now make the country accessible to more students who cannot afford the cost of spending an entire semester or year in a foreign country, Dominican Associate Professor Christina Perez said.

Perez, who studied at the University of Havana, said Cuba is a fascinating place to study.

“On one hand it’s a place frozen in time,” Perez said, “But what’s amazing is how contemporary and how sophisticated it really is.”

When Perez joined Dominican in 2004, the university asked whether she could use her connections with the University of Havana and intimate knowledge of the country to develop a unique study abroad program for the school.

The Dominican students will study different elements of Cuba and its culture, from its economy to its nationalized health-care system, during a visit to the Latin American School of Science and Medicine. The students will also visit Baracoa — the site where Christopher Columbus first landed in Cuba.

Delgado, who is majoring in sociology and criminology, admits that before she started studying Cuba, she had a very negative view of the country.

But the history and cultural crash courses she and her fellow students have taken at Dominican opened her eyes to the full story behind the island nation 90 miles from the U.S. shoreline.

Perez stresses “that nothing is black and white,” said student Vanessa Vanderzee. “Here are the facts and here are all sides of the story.”

Vanderzee, 19, of Schaumburg, who is studying corporate communications, said students today are possibly “more open-minded’’ to learning about Cuba.

“What’s interesting about my generation is because we didn’t experience the Cold War or the Cuban revolution, we have a very unique perspective,’’ she said.

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