Katherine Lawson is a passionate defender of human rights.
In the eighth grade, the now 19-year-old Ellicott City woman helped the homeless by working in a Virginia soup kitchen. By the time she graduated from high school, she had participated in Washington marches in support of rights for women, gays and lesbians.
Now, the 1993 Mount Hebron High School graduate is eager to lift the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, a goal prompted by a 10-day trip to the communist nation last month.
"She's a very issue-oriented person," said her mother, Mary Lawson. "She wants things to be right. If there's an underdog, she's there."
The trip "completely changed my mind about Cuba," said Ms. Lawson, who returned home June 22 after visiting Havana and a rural village called Sancti Spiritus.
A sophomore at Earlham College in Richmond, Ind., Ms. Lawson was one of 20 college students, doctors and nurses who traveled to Cuba to observe the country's health and educational systems.
The purpose of the trip was to foster better relations between Cuba and the United States, according to Ruth Neff, the trip coordinator for Neighbors East and West, an Indiana organization that meets monthly and takes trips around the world.
"We've got an old-fashioned policy toward Cuba," said Ms. Neff. Cuba and the United States share similar attitudes, including a belief in free education and advanced health care, she said.
But the island nation is struggling in the wake of the collapse of its patron, the former Soviet Union. Gasoline, oil, food and medicine are in short supply, she said.
During the trip, the group visited a school for deaf children, a day care center and a 190-bed hospital.
Ms. Lawson found Cuba's health care system remarkable. Family doctors and nurses are stationed throughout Cuba, caring for about 125 families in a given area. In this way, the Cuban government says, about 97 percent of the population receives medical treatment.
"Their primary care is so extensive," Ms. Lawson said. "They make sure everybody is taken care of."
In addition to providing medical treatment, doctor-and-nurse teams inspect restaurants for cleanliness and monitor public sanitation in their jurisdictions.
Ms. Lawson was also impressed by Cuba's educational system. Children attend school until ninth grade, when they either continue their studies or learn a trade. Discipline is also strict, she said.
"If you have a problem with a child, the teacher calls the parents immediately," Ms. Lawson said. "If a problem comes up a second time, the child is transferred to a second school with smaller classes."
Throughout her stay, Ms. Lawson met friendly, gregarious Cubans who were curious about American lifestyles.
"They were always wanting to talk to us," Ms. Lawson said. "They kept asking questions like, 'Do you have a big house? How many cars do you have?' "
As she toured the island, Ms. Lawson was struck by the Cubans' thrifty survival techniques. Food is rationed and many have turned to bicycles because of the shortage of gasoline and oil. Parents help clean and maintain public schools, while medical providers use herbal remedies to treat the sick.
The warmth Ms. Lawson encountered during her trip to Cuba convinced her that United States needs to rescind its 33-year-old embargo against the nation.
"The hostility between Cuba and the U.S. is a political thing, not a people thing," Ms. Lawson said.