SAU, Cuban university ink pact
About two years and four trips later, Southern Arkansas University finalized an agreement for scientific and cultural exchanges with a Cuban university on Wednesday.
The Magnolia university will now partner with the University of Artemisa in Cuba in developing annual programming, including student and faculty exchanges and joint research projects, SAU President Trey Berry said. The universities are hoping to exchange three students each in the summer of 2018, he said.
“Education has always been a bridge between people and cultures,” Berry said. “Education is also a bridge in understanding. Today, we continue to build that bridge with the University of Artemisa. … We are doing this for the betterment of our students, our faculty and hopefully the people of our respective countries.”
On Wednesday when the two universities’ presidents signed the agreement, SAU became the first public university in the state to formalize a partnership with a Cuban school. It is also the latest in state leaders’ efforts to work with Cuba: Many Arkansas politicians have pushed for trade with the country.
Other public universities in Arkansas have studyabroad programs in place to send students to other countries.
Arkansas State University has a campus in Queretaro, Mexico, that was paid for by Mexican officials. ASU plans to set up faculty and student exchanges but is currently focused on recruiting and accommodating the first class of undergraduates in Queretaro, said Jeff Hankins, vice president for strategic communications and economic development for the Arkansas State University System.
The University of Arkansas, Fayetteville also has foreign-exchange programs.
SAU’s agreement came to be largely because of the work of Ed Kardas, a distinguished professor of psychology and director of the university’s Honors Program.
Kardas tagged along when the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce went to Cuba in May 2015, shortly after the U.S. began easing travel restrictions to the country. Once he got back, the university set up the Extramural Education Committee and pieced together a Web page and brochures in Spanish about SAU for a second trip there.
He and Juping Wang, an associate professor of Spanish at SAU, went back in February for Universidad 2016, an international conference on higher education in Havana. Kardas grew tired and asked if he could sit down at a table where, as it happened, Margarita Gonzalez, the University of Artemisa’s director of international affairs and a psychology professor, was seated, he recounted.
The encounter was fateful, Kardas has said, as the two started dreaming up an exchange program for their two schools. And they started with art.
In November 2016, Kardas, Steven Ochs, an art professor, and SAU student Veronica Ramirez went to Cuba to work with Artemisa students and professors on a campus. Despite some challenges, the group, along with Cuban art students, finished crafting a 9-by-23-foot mural with some 3-D elements and texture. The mural represents images of the emerging relationship between the two schools.
Now, SAU is hosting a delegation from Cuba, including the University of Artemisa’s president, Carlos Eduardo Suarez Ponciano; a university art professor Abel Alfonso Castro; and a master’s student at the university, Yoan Perez Nunez. The art professor and student are completing a “mirror” mural at SAU similar to the one on their campus.
“For me, it was a marvelous experience,” Nunez said through a translator. “Being a student at the University of Artemisa and coming here representing my future career and to finish the mural project that we began in Artemisa.”
Both Nunez and Castro said they have learned more through the experiences in Artemisa and Magnolia.
The agreement signed Wednesday also calls for the analysis and endorsement of joint projects for master’s and doctoral degrees; teaching of courses, seminars and symposiums; and an exchange of bibliographical materials, texts and journals. It also calls for a faculty coordinator at each school who will help manage the relationship between the two schools.
The school leaders are hoping for a continual exchange that could start as early as spring next year, Berry said. He added that the Cuban school is very similar to SAU in enrollment, its rural setting and its academic programs. In fall 2016, SAU had 4,771 students, a growth of about 43 percent in the past five years.
The groups have already been brainstorming on ways to collaborate, Ponciano said through Kardas, but any projects will be identified together and will benefit both institutions.
“I believe, as well, that after signing this agreement that we will have to always be careful to revise it and renew it so that it becomes and remains a living document,” Ponciano said through an interpreter. “All we have really done here is make a formal agreement, but it’s going to be in the will of the future men and women working together that’s going to make it work and that will also allow it to grow, develop, evolve in the future.”
Carlos Ponciano (left), head of the University of Artemisa, and Trey Berry, president of Southern Arkansas University, seal the signing of the schools’ cooperation agreement with a handshake Wednesday at the Capitol.