Sports journalism students at work in Cuba

November 23, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — After eating their holiday meal nearly a week early, eight Penn State students are spending what should be their Thanksgiving break working in Cuba.

The students, members of the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism housed in the College of Communications, are following the Penn State baseball team during its historic trip to Cuba to play four games against Cuban National Series teams.

Along with the baseball games, the Penn State student-athletes will attend cultural events and lectures by leading Cuban scholars, visit important historical sites, and travel the countryside to get a glimpse of real Cuban life outside the tourist centers of Havana. On Thanksgiving Day, the team will learn about the history of sport in Cuba with special guest Yosvany Aragón, a former star on the Cuban national baseball team.

Penn State baseball will be the fourth U.S. collegiate contingent to visit Cuba this year. The Princeton track and field team traveled to Cuba in June, and the Coastal Carolina men's basketball squad visited in August. A group of Vanderbilt student-athletes and staff visited in July.

Throughout the week, the College of Communications group — a mix of broadcast, multimedia and photojournalism students accompanied by three faculty members — will chronicle the trip and share their content with media outlets in Pennsylvania and beyond through a partnership with the Pennsylvania News Media Association.

“It’s just an amazing opportunity,” said Andy Madore, a senior journalism major. “From a sports standpoint it’s great experience, but more importantly it’s a chance to learn more about Cuba, about its culture, and to share those stories. Not many people have been able to do something like this.”

The communications students left campus Nov. 20 and will return Nov. 29. Along with content distributed to PNA partners, their work will be available at commedia.psu.edu online after they return.

Students were preparing for the trip to Cuba for months without knowing until early in the fall semester whether the trip would get approval from the Cuban government. It is the second trip featuring students from the College of Communications in the past three years to Cuba. A separate group in an international reporting class traveled to Havana in 2014.

The students’ Thanksgiving “family” meal was conducted Nov. 20 at a hotel in Philadelphia before they left for Havana.

“It’ll be different to not be home for Thanksgiving, but that’s been the case for me a lot of years because we were always competing in field hockey tournaments at this time of year. Honestly, it’s just the past couple of years that I have been home for Thanksgiving,” said Madeline Shutt, a senior journalism major. “I’ll miss that, but this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

In the past, Penn State students have covered the Croke Park Classic, Super Bowl, Final Four and Olympics as part of similar endeavors. John Affleck, the Knight Chair in Sports Journalism and Society and director of the Curley Center, said the center is committed to providing real-time, professional experiences and covering events of cultural significance. “The trip to Havana could not come at a more important moment for U.S.-Cuba relations, and we are excited that we’ll be there to tell the story for everyone back in Pennsylvania,” he said.

While the model will be similar, Affleck knows the Cuba trip poses a different set of challenges. “Americans did not see much of Cuba in the 50-plus years our nations had no formal diplomatic relations,” he said. “Sports is a great window on culture, and we hope to give readers and viewers a better sense of what Cuba and Cubans are like through that lens of sports.”

Again, students will gain valuable, real-world experience while covering a major event. Like other such trips, the mix of cultural and professional challenges exemplifies the goal of the Curley Center in preparing student sports journalists through unrivaled and thought-provoking opportunities.

“We want students to get experiences here that are not possible anywhere else,” said Affleck, who started planning another trip — to the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016 — nearly a year ago. “And we are lucky enough to have quality students who can undertake such endeavors, grow personally and, at the same time, help news organizations by providing meaningful content.”

Last Updated January 15, 2016