Experience beyond the classroom proves invaluable to Dickinson Law students

January 26, 2016

CARLISLE, Pa. — Penn State’s Dickinson Law has a long tradition of offering students embedded opportunities for foreign legal studies. This year, Dickinson Law continued that tradition with a new comparative international law course focusing on Cuba and the legal systems within.

“These short, embedded opportunities are a wonderful way to inspire our students to think critically — not only about foreign systems, but also about our own legal system that affects health care, economic development, social care and immigration policies,” said professor of law Katherine Pearson, who made her first educational journey to Cuba in 2015 with help from Penn State’s Office of Global Programs, the Center for Jose Martí Studies, and the School of Law at the University of Havana.

A group of students, including five first-year students, joined Pearson for an intersession week of study and travel in Cuba in January 2016. Prior to their departure, the students received a preparatory lecture given by professor of law and Russian law scholar William Butler, who introduced comparative legal principles and elements of governance associated with Soviet legal systems.

While in Cuba, Pearson and the students attended two classes each morning and engaged with many speakers, including Marta Fernández, vice dean of the School of Law, University of Havana. Topics presented include the works of Jose Martí as one of Cuba’s national heroes; Cuba’s newly adopted laws on economic development, foreign investment, property and taxes; and overviews of the health care system, judiciary and criminal laws. Daily afternoon excursions included visits to a municipal court where students met with a panel of six professional judges who explained their close working relationship with lay judges for all cases heard by Cuban courts, a community development project that provides training in arts for children and adults, and a polyclinic where students saw Cuban health care in action. The group also toured the University of Havana.

“While it is simple to learn the theoretical differences between a common law versus civil law system, actually spending time seeing and experiencing it makes a difference,” said first-year student Robert Wood, from Dallastown, Pennsylvania. “Learning about the Cuban civil code system from the legal professionals and everyday people of Cuba established an understanding that otherwise cannot be taught in a classroom in Pennsylvania.”

Similarly, first-year student Lindsay Daniels, from Farmington, Connecticut, who previously spent a semester abroad in Spain as an undergraduate, found it interesting to hear about the evolution of Cuba’s law from the influences of Spain and the U.S.S.R., and efforts to establish a new model that permits wider opportunities for joint ventures.

On the final day, the group left Havana and toured the countryside and limestone caverns. They also spoke with farmers about local crops, including tobacco.

First-year law student Steven Sess, from Boca Raton, Florida, said that this opportunity showed him that there are several different legal systems that operate very differently than our own.

“We often tend to not look beyond our own borders,” noted Sess. “The program introduced us to multiple aspects of the Cuban legal system. While I was able to gain a deeper understand of Cuban laws, I also had the opportunity to explore the local community and learn more about the Cuban way of life.”

The educational process continued when the students returned to the United States. Each student selected a Cuban law topic to analyze from a comparative perspective for their final papers and presentations.

“I’m interested in writing about the challenges of foreign investment,” commented Jonathan Anderson, a first-year student from Pensacola, Florida, who is already thinking about a commercial law practice, possibly based in Atlanta.  

“One thing remains clear: Lawyers within the United States continue to have limited knowledge of the Cuban system,” said Wood. “From the lessons and experiences of the limited time spent in Cuba with this course, I gained a better understanding of the changing Cuban state system and will be better suited to advise businesses and clients about new opportunity that is starting to present in Cuba.”

Dickinson Law faculty plan to continue the program and return to Cuba in early 2017 to witness and understand the challenges they are facing.

“This is an important time for our two countries,” noted Pearson. “I’m also looking forward to developing other comparative experiences, perhaps including Puerto Rico, which as a territory of the United States offers another opportunity for us to think carefully about relationships and governance.”

To learn more about Dickinson Law's trip to Cuba, read first-year law student Yio Kyung “Joy” Lee's story, "Inside Cuban law and culture: A law student’s perspective." 

  • Dickinson Law Cuba trip 2016

    A view of the ocean between Cuba and Florida from within the halls of the University of Havana — the oldest University in Cuba — looking past the Alma Mater statue, which sits on the steps of the monumental entrance to the university. 

    IMAGE: Juan Manuel Sariñana
Last Updated January 26, 2016