While architecture drew nine interior design students to a study abroad trip to Cuba, the heart of the experience turned out to be people, not buildings.

Melissa Santana, assistant professor of interior design at NAU, led a trip to Havana, Cuba, over spring break where students learned about historic preservation and the kindness of the Cuban people.

“As a frequent traveler to Cuba, I knew that offering the chance to study adaptive reuse and historic preservation would be just a small part of the value gained from the trip,” Santana said. “Students experienced the culture firsthand by living with host families who showed kindness far beyond expectation. It touched the hearts of everyone on the trip to experience such generosity despite political tensions between our countries.”

The group, composed of sophomores, juniors and seniors, immersed themselves in the Cuban culture and 500 years of architectural history visiting plazas, Colon Cemetery and the Museum of Revolution, to name a few.

Santana said students made the correlation that their profession has a lot to do with politics—a key take-away for the burgeoning interior designers. They were able to see first-hand how Cuban designers and architects, like Miguel Coyula, consider cultural value and navigate political waters when converting historic buildings into new spaces like schools, museums and restaurants.

cuba4Coyula, a well-known Cuban architect and professor at the University of Havana, met with NAU students and discussed how cultural heritage can be derived from architecture.

While study abroad students Lindsey Griffin and April Beard learned a lot from the study of Cuban design, they said it was the interaction with the people of Havana that will forever live in their hearts.

“They were the humblest people I’ve ever met,” said Beard, a third-year interior design major. “The state of political affairs between our countries didn’t matter to the Cuban people we met; they were so caring and always willing to help us, no matter what.”

Griffin, a senior in the Interior Design program, added that she was surprised to feel more safe walking the streets of Havana than she does in some cities in America.

“It was an experience of a lifetime—so much more than architecture,” Griffin said. “I’m forever grateful to have been given this opportunity and proud to be part of the first group from NAU to study abroad in Cuba.”