Montclair State Students Study Public Health in Cuba

Second Trip Planned for January 2013

“It was a life-changing experience,” is how Montclair State University student Dawn Diamond described the first University-organized study trip to Cuba. She was one of ten students who traveled to Cuba to study that country’s public health system from May 20-30. The University’s project partner was Witness for Peace, a Washington, DC-based politically independent, nationwide grassroots organization that is committed to non-violence and social justice.

“The trip was a powerful learning experience,” says Jhon Velasco, professor of health and nutrition sciences, who led the group of seven undergraduates, two graduate students, and one alumnus. “Cuba has one of the best and most respected public health care systems in the world. They spend far less money per person than we do on public health, yet boast a higher life expectancy rate and lower infant mortality rate,” he adds.

Arranged in conjunction with Montclair State’s Global Education Center, the trip was part of a three-credit, four-week summer course in Selected Topics in Health designed by Velasco to compare the American and Cuban public health systems. “Cuba has done great work in public health, primarily by focusing on primary and preventive care,” Velasco notes.

“The trip inspired me by showing me ways we can improve our public health system,” says Imad Ibrahim, who is studying for his master’s degree in Public Health. “I was touched by the warm welcome we received wherever we went,” he adds.

The group visited hospitals and clinics and met with public health officials and health care practitioners. Their busy itinerary included visits to the School of Solidarity with Panama for disabled children, the National Sex Education Center, the Matanzas Pharmaceutical Museum, the Museum of the Revolution, and the Cuban Institute of Art.

Havana’s Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Center, an ecumenical Cuban organization offering a range of social programs and services, as well as dorm-style accommodations was the group’s base. “We traveled in a van, for the most part, but Havana is a wonderfully walkable city,” Velasco says.

Evidence of America’s near total 50-year embargo against Cuba was everywhere. Students particularly noticed that while new European and Asian cars were on the roads, all the American cars dated from the 1950s and even the 1940s. “Everyone in the group felt that it’s time to lift the embargo. Now that we’re home, the students plan to write letters to elected officials and newspapers calling for its end,” Velasco says. He has led past study trips to Nicaragua, where students were also encouraged to draw on their experiences to promote political and policy changes.

While the total cost of the trip was $2,400, several students received partial scholarships through the Global Education Center, the Department of Health and Nutrition Sciences, and the College of Education and Human Services.

“The course was a resounding success,” says Velasco, who is already planning a second winter session course and trip to Cuba. “I’m extremely excited about this new endeavor. I will be selecting 15 students for this project who will visit Cuba with me from January 2-11, 2013.” Interested students can email him at