Cuba is a sporting power thanks to the efforts of the revolutionary government to promote the practice of athletes on a mass scale, permitting the island to insert itself among the most privileged places in the international arena. But the socialist island does not limit itself to these goals alone. Cuba also offers educational opportunities, free of charge, to other nations.

The International Sports School is a higher learning center that has opened its doors to low-income students to become athletic professionals.

The university, southeast of Havana, opened in 1999 and was the result of Cuban President Fidel Castro’s proposal to train specialists in Latin America and “encourage wholesome and noble activity in their countries of origin.” The school also trains students from Africa and Asia.

Jorge Armando Polo Vázquez, the school’s dean, explained, “The International Sports School works toward integral training, resulting in highly qualified young professionals who at the same time possess a sense of solidarity, humanism and fraternity.”

Vazquez said it was necessary to take into account dietary, living and religious customs as well, given the particular nature of each culture represented at the school.

Covering about 74 acres, the university boasts socio-administrative and teaching facilities, dining rooms, dormitories, maintenance and service infrastructure, as well as sports facilities with open-air playing fields and gymnasiums.

The school began with 51 countries represented. There are currently 75.

Students at the university receive free lodging, school transportation, and academic services (including books), school uniforms and sportswear, medical and dental care, and washing and dry-cleaning services. They also receive a monthly stipend of up to 100 Cuban pesos.

At the university, students have access to national and international telephones and e-mail, as well as a 24-hour cafeteria, souvenir shop, barbers and hairdressers, post office, a national and international bank and a currency exchange.

The degree course is five years in length and students graduate with a degree in sports science. The study plan is composed of 13 disciplines bringing together subjects within the faculties of arts, humanities, and basic sciences. Obtaining a diploma requires writing a thesis proposal on the development of a specific sport and is presented to a panel.

Classes are given in basic sports such as football, volleyball and other areas such as rhythmic and basic gymnastics. Spanish and English are also taught.

The center has graduated 807 students from 60 countries. Some graduates are now occupying executive posts in their countries’ sports institutions.

Alexander Saborío, a second-year student from Costa Rica, said, “Cuba is one of the most developed countries in terms of sports and physical culture, so I took advantage of this opportunity offered by the Cuban government, thanks to Fidel. I’m very happy. The greatest surprise here was getting to know people from all the other countries because their cultures are very different. The school has very good facilities and the teachers are very good; they’re our friends.”

Applications to the school come through Cuba’s embassies around the world. The Cuban Foreign Ministry offers scholarships.

Tema Dlamini from the Kingdom of Swaziland said, “I was interested in studying for a degree that was sports related. Sports in my country is not promoted very much. I would like to see it developed more. I’m going to be the first person from my country to graduate with this degree and this for me is a great opportunity.”

While that many students come without any previous sports training, for Vietnam’s Linh Nguyen Thy, the coursework here is a step further in the training she began in her country some years ago.

“I studied for a degree at a university in my country and won a scholarship to come to Cuba and study. At the beginning, the training was very hard but now it is not so bad because we train every day. It’s normal now. I studied sports pedagogy in Vietnam and had no previous sports training.”

The school’s teams participate in the Cuban Olympics and in university competitions at a national level. The school also hosts international soccer and basketball competitions. The school hopes to establish wider cooperation with other universities, both in Cuba and abroad.

This article was excerpted from a story that originally appeared at Granma International .