From the May 2017 Desktop News | Of his 32 years at The University of Alabama, retiring Spanish professor Dr. Michael Schnepf says that his last 10 have been the best. Since 2007, he has been at the forefront of UA’s ties to Cuba, serving as the director of UA’s Cuban study abroad program and the co-director of the Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship. In the process, he has been to Cuba 35 times.
“You don’t ever have to ask if I want to go to Cuba,” Schnepf said. “The answer is always yes. In fact, I’m actually making arrangements to go back to Cuba by myself in December.”
In the last decade Schnepf and his students have explored the entire island—from Vinales in the west to Guantanamo in the east and Bay of Pigs in the South. They’ve become familiar with Ernest Hemingway’s house in Havana and visited tobacco factories, art museums, and more. But aside from everything Schnepf has seen and done, he says the best part of Cuba, hands down, has been working with the people.
“These are people who are making $40 a month, but they’ll still invite you to their homes for supper, and when you say ‘what can I bring,’ they respond with ‘don’t you dare bring a thing,’” Schnepf said.
Schnepf describes the people as generous, kind, humble, hardworking, engaging, creative, and brilliant. He’s met and become friends with local professors, artists, and doctors. He has close relationships with the five local drivers that transport his students around each year, and he’s even become friends with Cuban legends like internationally recognized author Leonardo Padura and world-record-holding high jumper Javier Sotomayor.
He is fully invested in Cuba, and with each trip, Schnepf encourages his students to make the most of their four-month experience as well by becoming fully immersed in the culture.
One group, in 2010, took his charge so seriously that they actually determined to live as closely to the way Cubans live as they could for an entire month: They spoke no English. They spent the same amount of money on food as Cubans could. They took crowded buses for travel instead of taxis.
“I was just so impressed with them,” Schnepf recalled. “They wanted to absorb as much as they could.”
Other students over the years made personal commitments to invest in Cuban culture by volunteering at a local urban garden, taking unusual classes in the community, and even getting involved and practicing with the Cuban national swim team.
“To go to Cuba for a semester to speak Spanish all day long is an incredible opportunity for students,” Schnepf said. “Even though relations with Cuba are being normalized, it’s still a sort of clandestine place. It’s really unique.”
And through the Center for Cuba Collaboration and Scholarship, students aren’t the only ones benefiting from UA’s ties to Cuba. Hundreds of faculty members have been able to travel to the island to conduct their own research as well. The book arts program has constructed multiple dual-language volumes; professors have written papers and published books on Cuban studies; and in 2014, Dr. John Clark even discovered a plant that had been considered extinct for more than 60 years.
Now that Schnepf is retiring, and passing the torch to his co-director Steve Miller, a book arts professor in the School of Library and Information Studies, and his predecessor Tom Wolfe, a professor of jazz in the School of Music, he is confident that the great legacy of the Cuba Center and the study abroad program will continue.
“There are very few Cuba centers,” Schnepf said. “I really want to see this one last, and I think that these men will help to do that. They are both great and have a lot of experience in Cuba. One thing I hope that they can get done that I didn’t, however, is bringing a Cuban undergraduate and a graduate student to UA for a year.”
Though Schnepf officially retired from academic life this semester, he plans to write a book on his friend and author Leonardo Padura as the capstone of his scholastic work.
“While working with a 19th century author in Spain for years, I often wondered what it would be like to speak to him in person,” Schnepf said. “Now that I have the chance to talk with Padura and pick his brain about his work, I can’t turn down the opportunity.”