A group of seventh graders from Cambridge is getting ready to travel to a country that, until recently, Americans didn't really have much access to — Cuba.
Thirty-three students from Vassal Lane Upper School, a public middle school, will travel to the island nation on Saturday and spend eight days immersing themselves in the culture. The trip is being led by the school's Spanish teacher, Oksana Deinak-Pingitore, who is originally from Cuba.
It's the first time a Cambridge public school is taking students to Cuba.
"What you get out of these traveling experiences can be very unique," Deinak-Pingitore said in an interview. "My kids, my students are going to be movers and shakers in this country and hopefully the experience that they have on this trip will also educate them in a way that will open their mind to the world."
Deinak-Pingitore said she wanted to share her Cuban heritage with her students and show them some of the places she visited during her childhood. The school's vice principal and five parents are also taking part in the trip. The students have a packed itinerary, including visits to a crocodile farm, caves and Ernest Hemingway's house in Havana.
And there will be plenty of chances for the students to practice their Spanish.
"It’s one thing to learn Spanish in a classroom, but to actually have to speak it all day ... it’s new," 13-year-old India Hyde, one of the students going, said on Thursday. "I’m excited to have the opportunity to do this."
"This is a terrific educational opportunity for our students," Cambridge Superintendent Jeff Young said in a statement, "and I am proud of their initiative, and that of our teachers and families, to make this happen."
Until recently, such an opportunity was more restricted for Americans. In January, the U.S. eased travel rules for Cuba, allowing travelers who meet certain criteria to go to the country without having to apply for a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Since then, there has been a surge in U.S.-government-approved tours to the country.
The student trip, however, has been in the works for two years, according to Deinak-Pingitore — before the Obama administration changed U.S. policy toward Cuba. She worked with a Canadian-based company called Authentic Cuba and had a license with the U.S. Treasury Department for travel to Cuba. From there, she developed an itinerary and worked with students and their parents to raise the $110,000 needed for the trip.
"A major part of this trip is that every student [who] wanted to go will be able to go, regardless of their ability to pay," Deinak-Pingitore said. "We’re taking 33 students and they’re all subsidized one way or another."
Parents provided about 60 percent of the funds, while the other 40 percent was raised through bake sales, raffles, donations and crowdfunding through a website the group created, Deinak-Pingitore said.
The students will take pictures and write daily about their experiences, which they will post to the website. They also plan to create a video and booklet about the trip after they return, Deinak-Pingitore said.
“It’s just amazing that we can go to Cuba … while it’s still in basically the same condition that it’s been in the last 50 years."13-year-old Maia Levitt
While foreign travel is something that schools -- private and public -- often do, the Vassal Lane trip comes at an interesting time for U.S.-Cuba relations, said Tom Scott, the executive director of the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents.
"We’re in the early stages of being introduced to our relationship with Cuba, so I think in some ways these are students who will look back 10 years from now and think about their ability to sort of be pioneers in terms of travel to Cuba," Scott said.
And that opportunity is not lost on the students taking part in the trip.
"It’s just amazing that we can go to Cuba ... while it’s still in basically the same condition that it’s been in the last 50 years," said 13-year-old Maia Levitt.
India Hyde's twin brother, Elias, said he's looking forward to sharing what he learns on the trip with others.
"We’re one of the few groups of kids going to Cuba and I hope to use the knowledge we gain to help everyone else we meet understand Cuba," Elias said.
The students will also get to spend time with Cuban kids their age.
"I'm excited and nervous because we'll have to talk a lot in Spanish to them and I don’t know how well I'm going to do ... but we've been preparing for two years," Elias said.
Thirteen-year-old Annie MacBeth said she hopes to make long-lasting connections with the kids she meets in Cuba.
"I’d love to find a pen pal to be able to talk to someone who’s living such a different life but is experiencing all the same things I’m experiencing as a seventh grader," she said. "People think they’re going to be so different from us, but I feel like they’re just kids just like us and it’s going to be really interesting to see the differences, but also the similarities between us."