How badly does Chasiti Falls want to be a doctor? Enough to share a dorm room with 18 other girls. Enough to eat beans and rice every day. Enough to leave her Atlanta home to attend medical school in Cuba.
Falls is one of about a hundred American students—more than half of them Black, according to recruiters, enrolled in the Medical School Scholarship Program at the Latin American School of Medical Sciences in Havana. Extended to Americans by Cuban President Fidel Castro in 2000, the program gives low-income students a free medical education in exchange for their commitment to provide health care to underserved communities in the United States. The students receive free tuition, books, and room and board for six years.
Students have to adjust to cold showers and bunk beds, but to Falls, who is a struggling single parent, these are small sacrifices to make for a free education. “It is not a walk in the park,” she says, “but it is worth it.”
The Reverend Lucius Walker, executive director of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization, which assists the medical school stateside, said the program is challenged by negative misconceptions about Cuba. “But there is a sector in the medical community who wants to see this program work and who will give it a chance,” he says. Black public servants also see its value: “There is a dearth of health care in the poor communities where the students will be working,” says California Congresswoman Barbara Lee.
In 2004, the Bush administration tightened regulations on Cuban travel, threatening the program’s future. But the Congressional Black Caucus fought for the students to stay in the country. Student Leon Daniels knows some hospitals may doubt the validity of a Cuban medical education, but he’s willing to take the risk. “If I am not able to practice back home, then other countries are a possibility,” he says. “Having this experience is invaluable.”
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