Pitt Magazine

How Jesse Horst is connecting students to the history and heartbeat of Havana

Horst stands on top of a building overlooking Havana

In Havana, Cuba, the city is a classroom for Jesse Horst’s students.

He steers them through Revolution Square, the National Museum of Fine Arts of Cuba and the National Capitol Building. Along the way, he helps them understand the entanglements of U.S. policy, the slave trade and complex economics. But his students also stroll into the everyday rhythms of Cuba’s people as they traverse bustling streets, chat with locals in Spanish, savor the cuisine and sway to infectious Cuban hip-hop.

Horst is a director of Sarah Lawrence College in Havana, a competitive study abroad program that brings students from various colleges to spend a semester in Cuba’s historically and culturally significant capital city. With Horst as their mentor, these students learn about Cuba while becoming a part of it.

He’s called the city home for the past seven years, but he’s felt connected to Cuba for much longer. He studied abroad there in 2004 while an undergraduate at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. Then, as a Pitt graduate student of history — with what he calls “foundational” support from the University’s Center for Latin American Studies — Horst spent years visiting Cuba, where he researched housing disparity and social reform, building local relationships and diving deep into the culture. When he earned his PhD in 2016, he was the recipient of the Eduardo Lozano Memorial Dissertation Award for best dissertation in Latin American studies.

Now, as Horst (A&S ’12G, ’16G) introduces his own students to Cuba, he’s hoping to help spark the same kind of empathy and understanding of its people and history that he’s had the opportunity to cultivate in himself.

“I want the students to see the world through people's eyes who have a totally different perspective, he says. “That’s how we learn to respect and appreciate differences.”