Alumni Spotlight: Jonathan Abbo

Jonathan is a 16-year-old high school student in South Florida. He is an avid traveler who loves to learn about other countries and their respective cultures.

Why did you choose this program?

My grandfather is Cuban so because I was given this once in a lifetime opportunity to visit his birthplace, there was no way I could pass it up. Both he and I were ecstatic when we found out I would be going and I'm glad I got to see where a part of my family comes from.

What did your program provider assist you with, and what did you have to organize on your own?

Rustic Pathways is a terrific program because it requires minimal planning on the participant's part. Once we registered with the program and scheduled our flights, my peers and I followed Rustic's itinerary up until the day of our departure.

What is one piece of advice you'd give to someone going on your program?

Be as open as possible to new experiences and don't go anywhere with any preconceived notions. Cuba is a very particular place in a unique situation, so you should approach it with an open mind to see why and how they got into this position. This doesn't mean that you have to truly buy into their ideologies, but trying to immerse yourself in the culture and the local mood makes for a significantly more meaningful experience

What does an average day/week look like as a participant of this program?

Each Rustic program varies significantly but in the specific one I did, "Innovation in Action," each day presented a brand new challenge and a different tourist-related activity. This particular program also included a formal class where we would have two hours of a design-thinking workshop every day which focused on fixing critical issues and finding the best ways to tackle them.

Going into your experience abroad, what was your biggest fear, and how did you overcome it? How did your views on the issue change?

My biggest fear was the country itself, as to most Americans, Cuba has a fairly negative reputation and I was fearful as to how strong the feeling of oppression and poverty would be. Thankfully, my preconceived ideas about Cuba were not completely accurate, as the people in the country seem to have accepted this lifestyle and have learned to live with it.

One day, in particular, stood out when we were told to go to Old Havana and talk to local people. Doing so was an incredibly eye-opening experience as although each individual has their own personal gripes with the current governmental system and its oppressive nature, they had all found ways to survive and adapt in their less than ideal circumstances.

After completing your program, what is the one primary lesson you can take home and apply to your life in a meaningful way?

The most important thing I realized while on this trip was that as a member of Western civilization, I live in a consumer-centric culture where we always crave the newest, most high-tech innovations. We live in such a materialistic bubble that we are unable to even fathom what people in other countries have to go through just to have running water or a cell phone. When we run out of anything we can simply drive to a local store and pick up a new one, a luxury that many people in this world are not afforded.

People in places like Cuba are forced to be incredibly resourceful and cunning with their limited assets. One particularly unique moment that stood out to me was when we were standing by the bay in Havana and we saw local fisherman using the condoms that the government rationed to them in order to spot their hook easily in the water.

While this story may seem bizarre, it is just another example of the harsh reality people in less developed parts of the world face daily. The message I would give to others after my experiences on this program is to lead a less materialistic and possession-driven life and appreciate everything you have because many people will sadly never be able to experience and benefit from half the things you take for granted.