By Kat Riddler, Editor-in-Chief

No one wants rain when they travel over the summer, but it is hard not to see a drop or two during the rainy season while in Costa Rica and Cuba. Students traveling to Costa Rica and Cuba as part of the the Professional Masters of Business Administration (PMBA) program had a rocky start to their 10 day trip as rain and flooding in Dallas, Texas caused the airline to cancel their flight out of the country the night before.

Beginning flight pattern to Panama then on to Cuba and Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rich Lowe.
Beginning flight pattern to Panama then on to Cuba and Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.

The PMBA program is a 21-month program where students with a professional background can get their degree in a time schedule that works for the student. Students are in the same class or cohort through the program. All students go on an international trip together in their second year to learn about international business and culture.

The PMBA trips have not been around for long. The 2017 trip to Italy will only be the fourth. The first trip was to Germany and was organized by a University of Missouri- St. Louis professor Peter Falk. The second trip was to China, and the third to Costa Rica and Cuba. Students do not know where they will be going their second year when they first apply to the program. The trips are chosen about a year out.

Jan Carrell, PMBA coordinator, described the difference between the UMSL Masters of Business program versus the PMBA program, “The primary difference is the delivery format.  Also, the Professional MBA program requires three years of professional work experience, so the students generally are more mature and focused. The PMBA is a lock-step, cohort program, so the same group of students are enrolled in the same classes throughout the 21-month experience. This structure fosters a sense of camaraderie that is difficult to replicate in the FlexMBA program.”

Many of the students chose the PMBA for the accreditation and flexibility of the program to be able to work with their busy schedules. Jackie Schlarman, graduate, PMBA, chose the degree not only for the program’s flexibility and rigor, but for the opportunity to bond with her cohort. Schlarman said, “You spend so much concentrated time with your cohort that you develop these friends and learn so much from them because they are coming from all different business situations. So, if you have an area of business that you are not familiar with, usually you are partnered with someone who has that experience and you are really able to make the most from both of your strengths and learn from each other.”

Cuba was an exceptionally special place to travel. It was only last year when Cuba and the United States were able to try to bury a half-a-century old hatchet by talks of opening embassies. It was not until March of this year, under President Barack Obama’s administration’s negotiations which started in December 2014, that the United States lifted the travel ban to Cuba. UMSL’s students were among the first to travel to Cuba without any travel embargo.

 

Cuban buildings. Photos courtesy of Rich Low.
Cuban buildings. Photos courtesy of Rich Low.

Darryl Curry, graduate, PMBA, said, “I kind of grew up with Cuba as Communism, Fidel the hardcore dictator, Cuban Missile Crisis, Bay of Pigs, all of this very aggressive Anti-American stances. That’s kind of what I grew up with. But when I got there it wasn’t like that at all.”

Cuba's taxi cars. These '50s cars are a memorable attraction in Cuba. Photo courtesy of UMSL's Graduate Business office.Photo courtesy of UMSL's Graduate Business office.
Cuba’s taxi cars. These ’50s cars are a memorable attraction in Cuba. Photo courtesy of UMSL’s Graduate Business office.

While in Cuba and Costa Rica, students visited the Christopher Columbus Cemetery, El Morro Fortress, Hemingway’s home, Havana’s Museum of Rum, a cigar lounge, a cocoa farm, and more. When students visited a coffee plantation, they learned about the whole process from the coffee bush’s ripened stages to the picking and production of the coffee beans. Rich Low, graduate PMBA, said, “We found out that most of the workers are migrant workers from other countries.They come to Costa Rica on a work visa to work the coffee plantations, make their money there, then when picking season is done they take the money with them.” The coffee plantation also had a rather large butterfly house on the property which added to the unique experience.

Cocoa demonstration. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.
Cocoa demonstration. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.

Presentations ranged from a former Cuba Ambassador to business professionals. One presenter, Ariel Vagas from VMWare Costa Rica Ltda., Director & General Manager of Costa Rica Operations for the software company, was at the airport the same day the students left Costa Rica. His personability really caught the attention of the students. Low fondly remembered the encounter at the airport gate. Low said, “We are standing there chit-chatting waiting for the gate to open and up walks Ariel Vargas from VMWare. Just out of the blue, and he said, ‘I know you guys.’ He stayed for about 45 minutes talking with us. He was on his way to Palo Alto, CA for a corporate meeting.”

PMBA Group outside of VMWare. Photo courtesy of UMSL's Graduate Business office.
PMBA Group outside of VMWare. Photo courtesy of UMSL’s Graduate Business office.

Even while in another country, the St. Louis Cardinals were famous. Timothy Burgess, graduate, PMBA, ran into a self-proclaimed biggest fan while in Cuba. Burgess said, “He starts telling me all this stuff about the St. Louis Cardinals-stuff that I don’t even know. And he is just telling me how he is the St. Louis Cardinals’ biggest fan. And he is like ‘next time you come, bring me a hat or something.’” Burgess so happened to have brought a used Cardinals baseball cap with him and offered it to the man. Burgess said although it was used, the man was happy to take the cap.

The bus made multiple stops for photo opportunities. This was a waterfall in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.
The bus made multiple stops for photo opportunities. This was a waterfall in Costa Rica. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.

All the students were eager to encourage others to travel to Cuba and Costa Rica. Many were singing the praises of Cuba over Costa Rica. For others to travel to Cuba, Curry warned, “However, it’s also going to be very important for people to set realistic expectations. You are not going to go to Cuba and go to a five-star resort. There is no Four Seasons, there is no Ritz-Carlton. You have to recognize that you are going into Cuba. But with that said, I absolutely encourage people to go to Cuba and learn more about its culture and learn more about its businesses and economy and where it’s going and how it’s growing.”

Panaramic view from hotel in Cuba. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.
Panaramic view from hotel in Cuba. Photo courtesy of Rich Low.

It was rainy season, and there were showers during the trip, but excursions and programs were not affected. Heavier rain persisted as PMBA students waited for several hours on the tarmac in Houston. They were on the tarmac so long that the plane was running low on fuel and had to go back to refuel before take-off. Luckily, the rain did not dampen the spirits of the students during the trip.