Students Bridge Gap Between UTEP and Cuba

Two students at The University of Texas at El Paso are making strides in bridging the gap between the United States and Cuba.

After months of emails, phone calls, interviews and piles of paperwork exchanged between UTEP’s Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry Luis Echegoyen, Ph.D., and the U.S. Embassy in Cuba, the Department of Chemistry at UTEP is hosting an intern from Havana, Cuba for the first time in the University’s history.

Olivia Fernandez Delgado is the newest member of Echegoyen’s Laboratory Research Group. In Cuba she was a fifth year student at the University of Havana under the faculty of chemistry, where she was writing a thesis based on her research.

“I couldn’t believe this opportunity came to me because for many people in Cuba, this is almost impossible,” Fernandez Delgado said. “I was really happy, but at the same time, I was scared.”

Through Echegoyen’s research, UTEP has been very involved in Cuba. In October 2015, Echegoyen and his colleagues organized a symposium at the Cuban Chemical Society in Havana titled Quimicuba’ 2015.

During the symposium, Echegoyen spoke about his research on “bucky balls” – 60 carbon atoms fused together in a soccer ball shape. He also discussed new compounds that could potentially advance the efficiency of solar cells.

Fernandez Delgado is currently working on several of Echegoyen’s projects, including creating identical replicas of the carbon compounds, completing chemical derivatives of solar cells in order to make solar devices and testing compounds in these devices, as well as characterization and synthesis.

Her internship began in late July and will continue until at least January with the approval of an extension from the U.S. embassy.

In Cuba, Fernandez Delgado was working simultaneously in two labs, where she was performing a research investigation that became her thesis.

“I decided to apply to do my Ph.D. in chemistry here because I really liked Dr. Echegoyen’s research group,” Fernandez Delgado said. “I always wanted to do material science investigation, and here I have the opportunity to do it in an amazing group and study in a great and well-known university.”

“Now that Olivia is here, more Cuban students are jumping on the bandwagon and want to come to UTEP,” Echegoyen said. “Students who come here from Cuba need to be trained because they do not have access to the equipment we have here. However, the high academic standards in Cuba compensate for a lack of training.”

Another student forming the network between UTEP and Cuba is Lydia Santoscoy, a senior marketing major in the College of Business Administration who became the first UTEP student to study abroad in Cuba.

Santoscoy was a part of the Language and Culture Program at La Universidad de la Habana in Cuba, where she discovered the different nuances of communication and culture practiced by Cuban people.

“During my three-week stay, I examined the influence of diverse cultural perspectives on customer behavior and alternative promotion techniques, communication and messaging styles,” Santoscoy said. “In Cuba, public advertising by the service industry is illegal, so I spoke to business owners about their advertisement resourcing.”

She communicated with black market business owners about the different techniques they use to engage and attract customers, and they shared bureaucratic loopholes that allowed them to remain in business despite strict regulations.

Santoscoy realized that Cuba is mostly known for vintage cars and historic buildings that make the nostalgic element the primary tourist attraction, but she learned that it is much more complex than its romanticized exterior. She recalls walking the Malecon, a famous ocean wall located in Havana, and speaking to fisherman who told her their stories of perseverance growing up in during the economic aftermath of the USSR collapse, which they called “La Lucha.”

Santoscoy remembers how after a day at the university, she and her colleagues in the program would walk to the Hotel Presidente or Hotel Havana Libre to access the Internet and contact family back in the U.S. since it is illegal to have Internet service in Cuban homes.

“Cubans are gifted in communication,” Santoscoy said. “It was a pleasure to see such confidence in their voices. I will try to take this into practice in my own life.”

Santoscoy did not neglect to take in the Cuban culture, visiting art museums and ballet and jazz performances that she described as “unequivocally breathtaking.” She explained how the same creativity and grace found in the Cuban language is expressed equally in their creative arts.

“I feel very blessed and honored to be an ambassador for The University of Texas at El Paso,” Santoscoy said. “I learned so much; it was overwhelming and positively life changing. I am looking forward to continuing to learn about Cuba’s complex history and traditions.”

Fernandez Delgado and Santoscoy are the first in their class of a new generation of students connecting UTEP to Cuba. Through them UTEP continues to extend its relationship with the country and expand its academic research diplomatically.

Author:  Esmeralda Treviño – UTEP Communications