Aspen High School students to visit Cuba during spring break

Erica Robbie
The Aspen Times
A group of Aspen High School students, including sophomores Emily Driscoll, left, and Hannah Small, are headed to Cuba over spring break with social studies teacher Gretchen Calhoun.
Jeremy Wallace/The Aspen Times |

What do the president of the United States, the Rolling Stones and a group of 12 Aspen High School students all have in common?

President Barack Obama, Mick Jagger and the gang, and an Aspen High School crew of 10 freshmen, two sophomores and one teacher all will fly into Cuba toward the end of the month.

What started out as an arbitrary comment made during Aspen High School teacher Gretchen Calhoun’s world geography class last year has evolved into a full-fledged school club, plane tickets to Havana and a Cuban itinerary.

“In Gretchen’s class, we had been talking about Cuba, and out of the blue she just said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to actually go to Cuba?’” sophomore Emily Driscoll said.

Driscoll, who was a freshman at the time, thought her teacher’s idea was so cool that she couldn’t shake it.

The sophomore co-founded the high school’s Cuba Club with Calhoun to attract other students who were interested in learning more about Cuban culture and potentially traveling to the Caribbean island nation.

One of those students was Aspen High School sophomore Hannah Small.

“I was really interested in learning about how they would get us into Cuba, so I went to the meeting, but I didn’t think we were actually going to go,” Small said. “But I proceeded with it because it sounded like an amazing opportunity.”

After hours spent researching and applying to obtain an educational visa, contacting travel agencies that lead high school students throughout the communist country and meeting with school district officials — who chose not to sanction the group’s activity — the Cuba Club made it happen.

“If we hadn’t been so dedicated, it probably wouldn’t have happened,” Small said. “That’s the important thing about how this trip came about — we worked really hard for it.”

The travel company OurCuba organized Aspen High School’s Cuban itinerary, which includes a visit to Ernest Hemingway’s house in a little fishing village called Cojimar — where Hemingway set his Nobel Prize-winning novel “The Old Man and the Sea” — a tour of a cigar factory, witnessing the oldest cannon in the Western Hemisphere be fired and volunteer service work at a Cuban convent.

The Aspen High School crew also hopes to catch the Rolling Stones’ free concert, which Calhoun said she thinks will take place near the group’s hotel.

“At least, that’s what our travel guide said,” Calhoun said.

As Calhoun, students and their parents pointed out, there are many unknowns associated with traveling to a communist country.

“We have no idea what to expect,” said Driscoll’s mother, Rebecca. “It’s sort of a riskier adventure for sure, and something that’s never been done by Aspen High School students before.”

Driscoll agreed with her mother.

“It is a little nerve-racking, and the itinerary said usually things don’t go as planned,” she said. “So I’m just going to bring an open mind and be very optimistic and accept anything that happens.”

Small recognized that there are risks but said they are “definitely worth it.”

“We’re very responsible,” Small added. “So I think we can all manage it and take care of ourselves if something does happen.”

Calhoun agreed with Small, calling the group of Aspen High School students “fantastic” and “future diplomats.”

“They’re all so open and excited for this cultural experience, which I kind of find rare for 15-year-olds,” Calhoun said.

Rebecca said that she thinks the trip is a wonderful opportunity for Aspen students to get outside their comfort zone.

“Hopefully they’ll get some nice perspective to see how many people in the world live,” she said. “We’re pretty insulated here in Aspen, and I’d hate to think most of these kids think everyone lives in $6 million mansions.”