By SHANNON O. WELLS
Two recent events on Pitt’s campus proved eye opening for Belkys Torres.
At the annual MLK Social Justice Symposium, Torres, who until recently was director of global engagement at the University Center for International Studies, experienced the University’s commitment to expanding the dialogue on crucial, big-picture topics by encouraging participation of faculty and staff as well as students.
While attending the Assessment and Teaching Conference in late January, she engaged with faculty and staff — as part of the Year of Emotional Well-being — about ways to be more proactive and creative in promoting students’ well-being in the classroom.
“There’s clearly a lot of fantastic work already being done,” she says. “And the question is, if this is happening within particular classrooms, can we scale that up over time? If this is happening within a department or a campus, can we broaden that out so that the entire University community can take advantage of the really good work that’s being done by our faculty and our staff in service of our students?”
Torres hopes to apply this dynamic to her newly created role as associate vice provost for inclusive excellence in education. Provost Ann Cudd, who named Torres to the position, effective Jan. 1, said the role will focus on increasing educational equity by “identifying and working toward the removal of academic and structural barriers to student persistence and completion,” with an emphasis on issues that disproportionately impact select student groups.
Cudd said Torres, who will report to Joe McCarthy, vice provost for undergraduate studies, will leverage her “considerable strengths in communication, collaboration and coordination” in partnering with the provost’s director of student success, the Educational Outreach Center and others “to foster academic success for all Pitt undergraduates.”
Strategic bridge building
While Torres says there’s “structurally, no overlap” with her previous global engagement role, she’s “certainly building on the experience” gained in the past seven years at Impact Global and the University Center for International Studies.
“The majority of my duties and responsibilities have been to develop in partnership with leadership a strategic plan for the University’s global engagement and then create the programs and measure the success of the programs through that strategic plan,” she says. “I’ve also been serving as an advocate for international populations at Pitt when necessary,” including international students, faculty and staff.
That’s meant considerable collaborative work with a range of stakeholders both within and outside the Pitt community.
“So really what I’m bringing to this new role is my experience in creating and building bridges and partnerships across units inside and outside (Pitt) to work in service of immigrant ethnic populations,” she says, “and now broadening that to include underrepresented and first-generation undergraduate students across the institution.”
The role also calls on Torres’ strategic planning and assessment experience to support McCarthy’s vision for breaking with structural inequities. She says these are embedded in “several parts of the institution” and disproportionately affecting Pitt’s “minoritized undergraduate populations.”
Listening and learning
At this early stage, Torres is taking a “listening and learning approach” to the role, meeting with University thought leaders, committee members and entities whose mission involves expanding or advancing goals of equity, diversity and inclusion.
“I’m hoping that over the next several months I can gain a more nuanced understanding of where we have really robust and high-quality projects and programs that are happening either, for example, at the departmental or school level, that we may (consider) implementing university wide,” she says, as well as finding possible gaps “where we might want to do additional thinking and dialogue as a community … in taking an equity-lens approach to understanding what’s happening inside and outside the (undergraduate) classroom space.”
McCarthy calls the associate vice provost for inclusive excellence in education role an “essential step” in supporting the University’s desire for and commitment to “ensuring an equitable learning environment and, ultimately, equitable outcomes for all our students,” he said.
“Dr. Torres’ experience in engaging across differences in international and multicultural spaces, coupled with her role and background as an educator and faculty member, make her an excellent addition to the Office of the Provost and the perfect candidate to serve as the inaugural steward of this critical role.”
A first-generation college graduate and daughter of Cuban refugees, Torres says the new project is “personal” to her.
“I had the experience of being an undergraduate student that was first generation and underrepresented, and I remember what it was like to fumble through my undergraduate experience, because advisors weren’t always cognizant of my need for additional support, or (because) I didn’t have mentors in my personal life who could show me how to navigate a university environment.
“And so for me working in service of students, so that I can try to make their experience much more productive and sort of learn from my own challenges as an undergraduate student to make the next generation’s experience much more productive,” she says.
“That’s a passion project.”
Shannon O. Wells is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at email@example.com.
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