Global Connections at Home: CHASS Welcomes Dean Peña

By Alex Villamor and Katherine Miller, CHASS Deans Office Student Interns

October 19 2015

Dean PenaAs UCR swings into a new school year, Dr. Milagros Peña is quickly settling into her new office as the Dean of the College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. While her research and insight make her a wonderful fit for the University, it’s her zeal for education and students that will undoubtedly make her a vital leader for CHASS.

Dean Peña’s passion for scholastic work began when she was a young girl. As the first in her family to graduate from both high school and college, she is familiar with the challenges that first-generation students face. Her inquisitive nature, however, was supported at home and in school—an impression that continues to motivate her to help struggling students achieve what they never thought possible. To her, invested teachers and role models create successful students and contributors to society. “My teachers,” she says, “called us to rise to the occasion. They had high expectations.” It was in school that she learned that the world belongs to everyone and that she had the ability to live up to her own aspirations.

Her world beyond the classroom was also full of family who inspired and supported her passion for learning. She believes her curiosity comes from her grandmother, a risk-taker who left Santo Domingo on a ship bound for Key West as they made their way to New York City. “My grandmother made me feel like women could do whatever they desired, and I think my dad, having been raised by a person like that, raised me the same way. The only thing that could get in my way was myself.”

If part of finding your way in the world is questioning the status quo, Dean Peña has been finding her way since she was a young girl. One of her most profound memories regarding the importance of bringing social awareness into the everyday was from when she was a child. Growing up in New York City, her childhood ran parallel to the civil rights movement. Her first memory of learning about Dr. Martin Luther King was from her grandmother. “My grandmother said, ‘Well, there’s this great preacher—who all these Gringos are afraid of—but when you hear him speak, it’s just incredible.” Her grandmother could sense that King’s message was about more than justice solely for the African American community—his message was about justice for the marginalized.

That message continues to fuel Dean Peña’s research. Her publications explore social movements, activism, and the importance of the message of justice,” and—perhaps most importantly—“questions about what we do as a society.” She has studied grassroots activism, the power of non-government and faith-based social change, and the individual’s role in liberation ideology, but is proudest of her book, Latina Activists Across Borders: Women’s Grassroots Organizing in Mexico and Texas. Besides its commendation from the American Sociological Association, this book in particular holds a special place in the Dean’s memory. After all of the care and meticulousness put into its content, she stumbled upon a piece of activist artwork perfect for the cover. That book, she says, “From the very beginning to the end, is full circle.” Fundamentally, her research comes from questions about her everyday life. The research she found most meaningful was derived from her observations of the world around her. “You have a sociological imagination. Your query comes from experiencing the world—and that is okay,” she says.

Universities facilitate those sorts of questions, and can often challenge the answers we thought were permanent. She learned the freedom of valuing her own lived experiences and is enthusiastic about encouraging students to do the same. A message she has for students is, “Don’t limit yourself as to who your friends are going to be when you’re at college or university. Join clubs, go on these international experiences because you’re going to find out a lot of things that you assumed get challenged.” She understands that a textbook education is no longer applicable to the global community we are part of. She knows as students seek exposure to new experiences they will be shaped into better people.

One of the best ways to meet new people and gain knowledge is through international education. The Dean’s first experience with international scholarship was a trip to Mexico. Being able to stand at the Presidential Palace, and see Diego Rivera’s murals changed the way she thought about history, colonization, and global politics. “I took history courses,” she says, “ but there is something striking about being there, that just touches on other emotions.” She has since become an avid supporter of students who want to make studying abroad part of their college experience.

Dean Peña believes that the real beauty of international scholarship is its ability to change one’s concept of home. “It forces you to think about how you live, how you think, future choices you make, and how they are impactful.”International scholarship certainly creates a broader appreciation for new experiences, yet building a conscious community begins at home, with small decisions—like buying a cup of coffee. She described a former graduate student’s dissertation, which focused on the sustainability of coffee cooperatives in Central America. Though she herself did not make the trip, guiding the dissertation made her more aware of the effort, risks, and consequences of shopping with the global community in mind.

Studying abroad profoundly influenced the way she thinks about social change and has given her the confidence to make small choices with big messages. “Sometimes,” she says, “we think that social change can only happen in these big political contexts and events—without realizing that, while those things are important, other things that are equally important are the choices we make.”Those choices are an expression of how we engage with another person: where we shop and what we buy are indicative of our willingness to engage others in the global community.

Though she may be new to our campus, Dean Peña is familiar with the way universities continually change. She is confident that UCR will face positive challenges during the coming year. “We are all going to be challenged,” she says, “to work together, both across departments and across colleges and schools” to ascertain the needs of previously unheard voices and move “out of the comfort zone of people we typically hire.” By building stronger professional relationships between departments and across campuses, the Dean hopes that students will be better able to apply interdisciplinary knowledge within the community.

Creating connections across departments, colleges and schools, will prepare students for the relationships between disciplines in the real world. Dean Peña highlighted the recent Ebola crisis as an example of science and humanities needing to work together. The ways that different cultures mourn a loved one’s death may be contradictory to safe medical practices, but it is vital for health professionals to be both technically knowledgeable and culturally perceptive. “We have to ask ourselves as a global community,” she says, “how well prepared are we? Not just to deal with something technical, but how do we respond to communities with different cultural understandings?”

As the new Dean, Dr. Peña anticipates making authentic connections with students, staff, and faculty. In building those relationships, she hopes to make her mark as a thoughtful and welcoming representative of the College. Her time as an administrator has been an ongoing discovery: of talents, of challenges, and of new opportunities for students to grow. She intends on continuing that spirit at UCR. She is rapidly adjusting to life in Riverside and enjoys shopping locally: you might see her at the downtown farmer’s market. Her reading tastes—like her scholarly pursuits—are wide and varied. When we spoke, she was reading through biographies of Russian royalty, and had nearly finished Dr. Laila Lalami’s The Moore’s Account when she attended Dr. Lalami’s reading—which, she ruefully admits, may have spoiled the ending. Above all, Dean Peña is passionate about helping students use their collegiate experience as a catalyst for their perception—of themselves, of the world, and how the two are connected.

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