Cuba: The Roots of Rollins’ Global Citizenship

At the dawn of the 20th century, the College had more Cuban students than any other institution in America. Now, a changing political landscape holds promise for re-establishing close ties with the island nation.

Jacinto Gonzalez (pictured here on the campus in 1898) and brother Eulogio Gonzalez started classes at Rollins College in 1896, making them the College’s first international students. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Jacinto Gonzalez (pictured here on the campus in 1898) and brother Eulogio Gonzalez started classes at Rollins College in 1896, making them the College’s first international students. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

Cuban brothers Jacinto and Eulogio Gonzalez hold a special place in Rollins’ history.

In 1896, they became the College’s first Latin-American students—and the first of many countrymen who would choose a Rollins education over the political tensions that culminated in the Spanish-American War.

Rollins College students including Eulogio Gonzalez (front row holding a hat) at Pinehurst Cottage in 1898. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Rollins College students including Eulogio Gonzalez (front row holding a hat) at Pinehurst Cottage in 1898. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

“When I enrolled at Rollins I was about 17 years of age,” Eulogio wrote in the 1928 Alumni Record, “and being a great observer and looking back to the terrible excitement I had left in Cuba, I always felt more quiet of spirit than any other youth. … (Cuban students at Rollins) shall never forget all the attention received during the most difficult time of our life, when our fathers had lost completely all they had due to the Cuban Independence war.”

Francisca “Fanny” Gonzalez was a Rollins professor of Spanish in 1917, 15 years after she graduated from the College. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Francisca “Fanny” Gonzalez was a Rollins professor of Spanish in 1917, 15 years after she graduated from the College. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) During Eulogio’s sophomore year, the College included students from 16 states and—thanks to its new Cuban population—one foreign country. The Gonzalez brothers’ two sisters, Francisca and Trina, were also among the growing student body. Two years later, in 1899, 22 students from the new island nation were attending Rollins, more than any other American institution.

“When the Spanish-American War broke out, a good number of students from Cuba sought college education at Rollins, thus making our school one of the more international institutions of higher learning in the South,” says Professor Wenxian Zhang, head of Archives & Special Collections at Olin Library. “In a way, more than a century ago, Rollins had begun to educate students for global citizenship, which, remarkably, is still a part of our mission today.”

Trina Gonzalez (left) stands with classmates Ollie Carpenter, Belle Odiorne, and Mary Hardaway. Circa 1899. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) Trina Gonzalez (left) stands with classmates Ollie Carpenter, Belle Odiorne, and Mary Hardaway. Circa 1899. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

Through the Years

The Rollins-Cuba connection continued well into the 20th century, with the Tars’ football and basketball teams even competing against the University of Havana during the 1920s. Yet the following three decades saw a string of devastating events—the Great Depression, World War II, and the rise of communist dictator Fidel Castro—that would effectively end the relationship.

A photo from 1899 shows the “Boys of Pinehurst,” a group of young students enrolled in the College’s preparatory department. Most were from Cuba and their average age was just 14. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections) A photo from 1899 shows the “Boys of Pinehurst,” a group of young students enrolled in the College’s preparatory department. Most were from Cuba and their average age was just 14. (Photo courtesy of Rollins College Archives & Special Collections)

Now that diplomatic relations are being restored, however, could Cuban students once again be returning to campus? Ed Bustos, Rollins’ director of international admission, is exploring the possibilities.

“A lot of non-U.S. universities have been going to Cuba in the past few years to recruit students,” he says, “and last year the University of Tampa went there too. So I think the doors are opening.”

As evidence of the changing landscape, Bustos points to an educational company that is holding a college recruitment tour in Havana early next year. There’s a good chance Rollins might send a representative.

“It’s something we’re considering, with the input of the administration,” Bustos says. “The idea of enrolling students from Cuba is very appealing, and I see a lot of potential.”

‘Retying the Knot’

With Cuba and the United States seemingly moving closer by the year, Rollins has wasted no time rekindling the long-dormant connection. Since 2012, professors and students have been traveling there on field study programs, and another trip is planned for spring break 2016. In May, faculty and staff will visit Cuba with assistant professor of Spanish Patricia Tomé, who recently spent her sabbatical on the island.

“Rollins has had a long-standing relationship with Cuba,” Tomé said last year before the College debuted its “Rollins (Re)Visits Cuba” photography exhibit. “Therefore, retying the knot seems necessary and appropriate with our commitment to global citizenship.”

Alia El-Assar’s ’12 photo of a student guitar ensemble in Cuba was on display at Winter Park City Hall in 2014. The photo was taken during a Rollins field study to Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Alia El-Assar ’12) Alia El-Assar’s ’12 photo of a student guitar ensemble in Cuba was on display at Winter Park City Hall in 2014. The photo was taken during a Rollins field study to Cuba. (Photo courtesy of Alia El-Assar ’12)