A group of University of Richmond student-athletes embarked on a week-long trip to Cuba this summer, immersing themselves in Afro-Cuban culture, social justice and leadership. 

Students were able to attend this short study abroad experience through the EnCompass program, a program within the Office of International Education that provides students an alternative to semester-long study abroad programs. 

The program was designed for students with more intensive major requirements and student-athletes who do not have the opportunity to go abroad for a whole semester, said Courtney Hughes, one of UR’s academic advisers in the athletics department. 

Hughes traveled to Cuba with sophomore Kendra Smither (track and field), redshirt junior Tim Miller (baseball), junior Abra Granger (field hockey), redshirt junior Grant Golden (basketball) and redshirt first-year Nile Harris (football).

“My hope for the trip was to provide these students with a new perspective on the world,” Hughes said. 

She emphasized the need for students to expose themselves to different parts of the world and make connections with various types of people.  

“We don't want you to leave college with the same thought process and frame of mind," Hughes said. "We want you to leave with renewed thoughts and perspectives on people, culture and environment.” 

The week consisted of meeting with host families in their homes and becoming more familiar with the cultures of Havana and Cienfuegos. 

Granger said her favorite part of the trip had been meeting with the different families. 

“They just wanted us to be comfortable and feel like we were a part of the family, not to mention that they were the nicest people ever,” Granger said. 

The students also played sports such as soccer, basketball and baseball with local community teams. They watched a dance company that used percussion music to produce a style of African heritage music.

Even though the trip lasted only one week, it did not come without struggle. 

Golden said his greatest struggle had been the language barrier. 

“I definitely struggled to speak in group conversations, but I mainly was just a big listener," Golden said. "If I didn’t have my peers to help me communicate with people in the community, I was able to make one-word answers go a long way.” 

Miller also noted the difficulties of the language barrier. 

He thought he may have been able to connect better with local citizens if he had known how to speak the language, and it made him want to learn how to speak Spanish better, Miller said. 

Granger, Smither and Harris are proficient Spanish speakers, so they were often able to assist in bridging that gap for their peers. 

All five of the student-athletes knew of each other before the trip, but they had not known each other on a personal basis. 

"Cell phone service was not good [in Cuba], so the athletes were able to go throughout the day without those types of distractions that are so common here in the U.S.," Hughes said. "It really helped in making the students get to know each other on a personal basis without the technology interface.” 

The student-athletes said they had appreciated the community and familial feel of the Afro-Cuban culture, which they attributed to the lack of cell phone service and Wi-Fi. 

“We would eat all together then talk afterward for hours because no one was worried about talking to anyone else," Smither said.

As part of the program, the students were required to write daily blogs as they went about each day. After the trip, the students collaborated on a short video recapping their experiences. 

“There was a lot of reflection and thought, engaging with the students that they are and asking themselves what can they bring back to UR and everyone around you,” Hughes said.

Hughes expressed gratitude to Martha Merritt, dean of International Education, for making it possible for these student-athletes to go to Cuba. 

“She has big visions and we are thankful for her support and the support of athletes for enabling us to go on this trip,” Hughes said.

Contact sports writer Grace Mittl at grace.mittl@richmond.edu