As the U.S. prepares for normalization, 18 Eckerd College students pack their bags for Cuba

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As the nation ponders whether or not it’s a good idea for the United States to normalize relations with Cuba, 18 students from Eckerd College in St. Pete are packing their bags for a two-week trip to the island nation.

The trip is part of a study-abroad course led by economics Professor Peter Hammerschmidt. Students will learn about the history and development of Cuba’s economic system and look at the nation’s efficiency, income distribution, resource ownership and government involvement. The group will compare Cuba’s economy to that of the U.S.

Much as the United States will now open an embassy in Cuba, Eckerd College is developing its relationship with Cuba through a partnership with the University of Havana that will allow marine science students and faculty to begin studying the nation’s marine environment this summer.

Unlike state colleges bound by state law from using public money to travel to Cuba, Eckerd College is private and not subject to those regulations. This will be Hammerschmidt’s third trip to Cuba, but his first with students.

“This is a significant opportunity to live in and study a culture, economy and political system significantly different from our own,” Hammerschmidt said.

Prior to the trip, students will spend a week doing classwork preparing them for the trip to explore five regions of the country.

“We are excited that our students and faculty will be able to study in Cuba,’’ said Suzan Harrison, Ph.D., dean of faculty, who traveled to Havana recently to discuss a relationship with the University of Havana. “It is one of the most fascinating countries in the world and only 90 miles from Florida.”

The students will leave from Tampa International Airport on January 10. The course is one of 20 Winter Term study-abroad courses. The programs allow students to study nations throughout the world, including China, Italy, Belize, Spain and Ecuador.

Janelle Irwin has been a professional journalist covering local news and politics in the Tampa Bay area since 2003. She also hosts a weekly political talk show on WMNF Community radio. Janelle formerly served as the sole staff reporter for WMNF News and previously covered news for and various local neighborhood newsletters. Her work has been featured in the New York Daily News, Free Speech Radio News and Florida Public Radio and she's been interviewed by radio stations across the nation for her coverage of the 2012 Republican National Convention. Janelle is a diehard news junkie who isn't afraid to take on big names in local politics including Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, the dirty business of trash and recycling in St. Pete and the ongoing Pier debacle. Her work as a reporter and radio host has earned her two WMNF awards including News Volunteer of the Year and Public Affairs Volunteer of the Year. Janelle is also the devoted mother to three brilliant and beautiful daughters who are a constant source of inspiration and occasional blogging fodder. To contact, email