From Hershey, Pennsylvania to Hershey, Cuba
By Chanel ’11
As a 2011 graduate of Milton Hershey School, I learned various lessons that have made a huge impact on my life and how I view the world. MHS gave me my initial start to world traveling, and traveling to Cuba has helped shape me in many other ways.
I spent four months exploring the diverse island, forming strong connections and making lasting memories. Having the opportunity to be immersed in such a unique and rich culture opened my eyes to a whole new world.
As I traveled through the island of Cuba, I visited breathtaking places and met interesting people. I visited Trinidad, Viñales, Varadero, and several beaches. I lived in the city of Havana and attended the University of Havana—one of the oldest universities in the western hemisphere.
I loved the energy and the people of Havana. Everyone was so helpful and always exchanged ideas about politics, life and love. The city was full of wonderful museums, parks and street art. During my stay in Havana, I typically spent time talking with friends on the Malecón, a 5-mile roadway along the coast, or walking around La Rampa, a street in the Vedado district of Havana.
One of my favorite places was the town of Hershey, Cuba. The town was renamed Central Camilo Cienfuegos after the Cuban revolution, but it was originally built by Milton S. Hershey as a sugar plantation center. When I visited, I noticed the town was basically a ghost town—very few people lived there and the factory was destroyed. However, this was my favorite town because it reminded me of my home in Hershey, Pennsylvania.
It was constructed just like the sweetest place on earth with stone houses, a town theater and a town pool. The history was captivating, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to experience it.
Throughout the rest of my time in Cuba, I interacted with people from all walks of life. I never expected to make friends who touched my heart and changed my outlook on life. The bonds I formed in Cuba were similar to the relationships I made with my MHS family. It might be a long time before I get to see or visit my Cuban family again, but I know they will always be there for me.
Being able to build these types of lasting bonds is a skill I learned at MHS, and I use it no matter where I travel. My seventh-grade English teacher used to tell me that “one of your greatest skills is knowing when to code-switch.” Code-switching involves knowing how to interact with people from different backgrounds, different races or different educational levels without making anyone feel like less of a person.
For instance, people in Cuba live without a lot of common necessities—but that doesn’t stop them from loving the life they have. Being able to immerse myself in their culture and understand that we are the same no matter where we come from helped me build long-lasting relationships. I would always ask my Cuban friends, “How can you live in a country with limited opportunities?” One of my friends answered by saying he tells jokes and dances because those are the things that bring him hope and happiness.
Ultimately, the people I met changed me and gave me a different kind of hope for my future. A future where I don’t have doubt, thanks to the strength and knowledge I’ve gained through my travels. A future where I don’t stress the little things because I’ve seen what it’s like to live in constant need.
In Cuba, I learned so much about myself and what I want to accomplish. I learned to not only appreciate where I travel but also where I came from. I believe my MHS foundation enhanced my study abroad experience. Coming from a place where I was given so many opportunities to be successful, I am grateful I had the chance to give back. I shared so much of myself and my MHS life with everyone in Cuba, which I hope will inspire other students to travel. I know that without the support and love I constantly receive from my MHS family, chances like this one would still be a dream.