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Three dental students.

Three dental students in the Cuban Educational Exchange program.

More than teeth: University of Minnesota dental students learn alongside their C

University of Minnesota dental students learn alongside their Cuban peers

By Pauline Oo

Published on April 23, 2004

When Loren Taple's wife said, "Let's go to Cuba," little did he realize that her vacation whim would result in an annual trip for University of Minnesota dental students to learn more about their field and help the dentists and people of Cuba. Taple, a general dentist and adjunct assistant professor of preventive sciences in the U's School of Dentistry, led the school's first Cuba Educational Exchange program in 2003.

"My wife and I went down in 1999 not knowing anybody," says Taple of his maiden voyage to Cuba. " But we had done some research on the Jewish community in Cuba [because I'm Jewish], and so, we started with what we knew."

While touring the Patronado Synagogue near their hotel, Taple made one of his most valuable academic contacts.

He met the president of the congregation, Jose Miller, who turned out to be a retired oral surgeon. Miller knew the person in the Cuban Health Ministry who was in charge of all the dentists in the country and he gave Taple the man's telephone number. "It took a while to set up, but in 2000, a colleague and I went down to Havana and had a meeting with this guy," explains Taple. "Told him what we wanted to do, and it got put together."

Havana via Montego Bay

This year, the Cuba Educational Exchange (March 21-28) once again coincided with the School of Dentistry's Jamaica Mission (March 14-28), during which University of Minnesota students provide preventive surgical and restorative care to rural Jamaicans through portable clinics.

"We do the Cuba trip in conjunction with Jamaica for two reasons: we have some of the same students, and we are already in the third country, Jamaica, [because there are no direct flights to Cuba from the U.S, you must enter via a third country]," explains Taple.

What is the U.S. policy on travelling to Cuba?

U.S. law prohibits spending money in Cuba. The U.S. Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control may, however, authorize the transaction for certain travelers, such as amateur or semi-professional athletes participating in a Cuban competition or journalists employed by a news reporting organization. The department may also issue specific licenses to educational institutions for educational activities by students or employees of the institution. For up-to-date travel information, see

Taple and his colleagues hand pick the four students who go to Cuba from the students who participated as juniors in the Jamaican mission the previous year. The students must submit essays explaining why they want to go to Cuba and they must raise funds for the trip.

"This is a totally student-driven, fund-raised trip," says Taple. "This year, 3M donated $8,000 worth of supplies, and this is on top of the $40,000 the students had to raise."

The reality

"I wanted to learn how their health care system works," says Erick Hallie, a general dentistry senior, of his interest in going to Cuba. "In Cuba, they have enough people to do the dentistry, [but] they just don't have all the necessary supplies to do it."

According to Taple, Cuba has three dental schools, 10,000 dentists, no private practices, and no dental hygienists. The dentists, called stomatologists, do everything and work for the government. "The average dentist down there makes $20 a month," says Taple. "A taxi driver will make more than a doctor."

Dental students in Cuba are taught five years of English during their training, says Hallie. "Many of them understood what you were saying, but could not speak English very well," he says. "The dental terminology in particular was difficult." Even for the American students. "I had taken two years of Spanish in high school, which was not even close to what I would need to converse with somebody there," remarks Hallie. Yet, he found the most fulfilling part of the trip to be the relationships he made with his peers."

"The hardest part was saying goodbye to the students in Cuba," says Hallie. "Not knowing when we would see them again was tough.... I would love to go back as faculty [leading the exchange] in the future, if possible."

Taple, on the other hand, gets to go back because of his role as program director. He has no plans to relinquish that role, despite the fact that he has to foot his own bill, because he strongly believes in peer learning and has developed a respect for the Cuban resolve.

"We had a kid walk into the clinic last year who had his two central incisors broken off at an angle," says Taple. "We had brought composite material and a curing light--basically stuff that they didn't have--and I fixed his two teeth. He was just beside himself and he wanted to bring me lunch. This boy's got nothing--most Cubans have nothing--and he wants to bring me lunch."

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