Field Notes

Day in the Life of a Program Designer

Follow Lisa through Cuba as she carefully designs the itineraries for two of GLA's newest programs

When people ask me what I do for a living, I say, “I try to create experiences that get students excited about understanding global issues and communities abroad.”

Designing programs for Global Leadership Adventures is more than just dreaming up fun travel activities and plopping them into an itinerary. With every decision I make, I ask myself a million questions, like: “Does this mutually benefit the traveler and the host community?” “Does this operator run their business in the most ethical way possible?” “Would this be fun, memorable and educational for every type of student?” and the age-old question: “What safety implications do I have to keep in mind?”

I've designed and led student programs abroad in Central America for over a decade! Love it when students bring selfie sticks on program...

Designing programs is a bit like being a cultural anthropologist, a travel guru, a historian, a party planner and a high school teacher all rolled up into one—you’re fulfilling people’s dreams and bucket lists and expectations, which is a great privilege as well as a great responsibility. Luckily, it comes with some real perks, including traveling often and spending lots of time on the ground in each destination, getting to know the local community and envisioning experiences that GLA students will cherish for life.

Last month, I touched down in Cuba to check up on everything we've planned for this summer's programs: Cuba: Cultural Odyssey™ and Cuba: Culture in Focus™

7:15AM: Cuban breakfast of champions

The early bird gets the worm, right? On these trips, I have a long list of items to get through, people to meet and places to visit: It's a good thing that Cuba's casa particulares  (homestays) serve a hearty breakfast, including bread, eggs, pork and fresh fruit.

8:00AM: On my way!

The center of old Havana can be a little chaotic, with horse-drawn carts, classic American cars, motorcycles, bicycle-powered taxis, cyclists and pedestrians all sharing the road. But it's a beautiful and exciting buzz, and you can always escape down a side street for a quieter commute surrounded by old, colorful buildings.

8:30AM: Meeting one of GLA's local partners in Cuba

GLA programs always begin with a relationship with a local partner—an NGO, a nonprofit, an individual, an educational institute—who can provide insider knowledge and ensure that we're being responsible and culturally sensitive travelers. Today I'm meeting with Mae, the director of the photography school in Havana, and some other staff members, who will work with students on the Cuba: Culture in Focus™ photojournalism program.

10:00AM: View photos taken by students of the photography school.

I'm so glad we picked Cuba as the destination for GLA's newest photography & journalism program. The work of previous students and local artists blows me away, and this summer GLA students will get to go on photo safaris in similar locations to try and produce their own creative takes on modern Cuban culture.

12:00PM: Taking a break to enjoy some authentic local cuisine.

You can learn a lot about a culture's rituals and values through food! Lunch consists of lamb, pork, fish and of course, fresh fruit juice and rice and beans.

1:30PM : Check out Muraleando, the project where students will do community service.

Muraleando is the organization that runs the project GLA students will volunteer with. Cubans have a way of using visual arts, performing arts and art therapy to solve social issues, which I think is incredibly interesting. In a society where people have few material possessions and a meager income, they thrive on finding gratification in creative expression and producing art.

Muraleando has literally transformed a struggling barrio into a People’s Art Gallery, which in turn has given its residents a reason to feel pride and belonging in their community.

3:30PM: Visit Callejón de Hamel, a street art and live music extravaganza.

Part of designing a program is vetting every experience that students will encounter. Some activities popular amongst tourists can be intense. I never underestimate students' ability to process big ideas or experiences though! In this case, Callejón de Hamel is a cool, art-filled alley that pulses with the energy of rumba music and live dance performances. A local children’s art program meets here too. I would love for students to see what a little community organization can do, and be inspired to start their own creative projects after returning home. 

4:00PM: Enjoying a Cuban coffee in the plaza.

The day is winding down and I've got tons of notes that I need to share with my headquarters team and staff members who will be running the program this summer. But first, coffee!

4:30PM: Art & music, everywhere.

The show never stops in Cuba. It's amazing how important artistic expression is, in this tightly regulated government with a free-spirited culture! On the short walk back to my casa particular, I can hear music from all directions and stumble upon this show.

5:18PM: Constant traveling is no joke! Catching a pre-dinner cat nap.

Traveling to cool places around the world can sometimes seem more glamorous than it is. I always find myself filled with so much inspiration, but running on adrenaline constantly means at some point I need to rest.

7:30PM: Catch up on work and send updates back to HQ.

As the person designing programs like the ones in Cuba, I'm constantly reading up on world news, communicating with different teams, working on my master schedule and sharing stories from these travel experiences to our Enrollment and Marketing teams. Of course, there's a boring side to it too: Budgets, contracts, spreadsheets. Ultimately, the work pays off: I can't wait for students to experience what I've seen so far. 

8:35PM: Some evening fun!

Want to get to know your team quickly? Travel together—and learn local board games! The shared experience of exploring new places while working hard is a great way to bond.

9:00PM: Bedtime and preparing for the next destination: Viñales!

Tomorrow I'm headed off to Viñales, a rural town in western Cuba about an hour and a half from Havana. I'm tagging along with another Cuban partner for a few days, this time one that operates a finca (ranch or farm) that grows food sustainably and organically. This is another portion of the community service that students on the Cuba programs will participate in, while learning about food security and a different side of Cuban culture. Time to rest up for another packed day. ¡Buenas noches!

Why Cuba?

When travel sanctions to Cuba were lifted, the team at GLA’s headquarters was overjoyed! As individuals who love to travel personally, we’d all been waiting for the chance to peer behind the political curtain and know what everyday Cuban life and culture were about.

We knew art, music and dance had flourished. We wondered if the street scenery of classic American cars and candy-colored building facades was as well-preserved as we hoped (spoiler alert: it is!). We’d heard of the idyllic organic farms that had thrived out of necessity, when Cuba was cut off from its supply of chemical fertilizer. After some of us saw, heard and tasted it for ourselves, we decided it was a perfect learning opportunity for our students, including those passionate about art and photography, those with a curiosity for politics and history and those who simply love to encounter new cultures as much as we do.

Pro tip - Safety! Cuba is actually referred to as the safest island in the Caribbean. The strict laws and extra friendly people have created this very secure atmosphere. I traveled alone for the most part in Cuba and felt extremely safe at all times. Of course, students will be supervised by staff and will always travel in groups.

Want to know more?

  • Cuba: Cultural Odyssey™ is a 12-day program where students can learn about Cuba's complex history and culture, volunteer on art projects, experience live music, museums and colorful street art, zipline over the Viñales biosphere reserve and learn about food sustainability on an eco-farm experience.
    Check out program dates & details | Download the day-by-day itinerary

  • Cuba: Culture in Focus™ is a 10-day program that allows students to go on photo tours of Havana’s street scenes and hidden gems, participate in workshops and image reviews with local photographers, photograph landscapes on the Viñales biosphere reserve and volunteer and support art projects benefiting urban families
    Check out program dates & details | Download the day-by-day itinerary

Give our Enrollment Specialists a call at +1 858-771-0645 to know more about our Cuba programs or get started on the Enrollment process.